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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Supreme Court Will Not Decide Transgender Title IX Case This Term

Posted on: March 7th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Supreme Court will not decide this term whether Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and an Education Department regulation, 34 C.F.R. Section 106.33, require schools that receive federal money to allow transgender students to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., No. 16-273 (Summary Disposition, March 6, 2017).  Title IX states that schools may not discriminate because of sex if they get federal money, and the regulation allows schools to provide separate restroom and locker room facilities for boys and girls so long as they are “equal.”

Responding to a February 22 letter from the Trump Administration, advising the Court that the Education and Justice Departments had “withdrawn” two federal agency letters issued during the Obama Administration interpreting the statute and regulation to require allowing transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity, the Court announced on March 6 that it was “vacating” the decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of transgender high school student Gavin Grimm, which it had previously agreed to review, and sending the case back to the 4th Circuit for “further consideration in light of the guidance document issued by the Department of Education and Department of Justice.”  The case had been scheduled for argument on March 28.

This result was not unexpected, although both parties in the case, Grimm and the Gloucester County, Virginia, School District, had asked the Court to keep the case on the docket and decide whether Title IX and the bathroom regulation required the district to let Grimm use boys’ restrooms at the high school. Represented by the ACLU LGBT Rights Project, Grimm urged the Court to hold the previously scheduled hearing.  The school district urged the Court to delay the hearing, in order to give the Trump Administration an opportunity to weigh in formally, but then to hear and decide the case.  Had the Court granted the school district’s request, the case might have been argued before the end of the Court’s current term or delayed to next fall.

The case dates back to 2015, when Grimm and his mother had met with school administrators during the summer prior to his sophomore year to tell them about his gender transition and they had agreed to let him use the boys’ restrooms, which he did for several weeks with no problems. Complaints by parents led the school board to adopt a resolution requiring students to use restrooms consistent with the sex indicated on their birth certificates – so-called “biological sex” – regardless of their gender identity.  The school also provided an alternative, unacceptable to Grimm, of using a single-user restroom that he found inconvenient and stigmatizing.

Grimm sued the school district, alleging a violation of his rights under Title IX and the 14th Amendment. The Education Department sent a letter at the request of the ACLU informing the district court that the Department interpreted Title IX and the bathroom regulation as “generally” requiring schools to let transgender students use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  Following the lead of several federal courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission interpreting other federal statutes that forbid sex discrimination, the Obama Administration took the position that laws against sex discrimination protect people from discrimination because of their gender identity.

The district judge, Robert Doumar, rejected the Obama Administration’s interpretation and granted the school district’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim on September 17, 2015 (132 F. Supp. 3d 736), while reserving judgment on Grimm’s alternative claim that the policy violated his right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.  Doumar opined that when adopting Title IX in 1972, Congress had not intended to forbid gender identity discrimination, notwithstanding the Obama Administration’s more recent interpretation of the statute.

The ACLU appealed Doumar’s ruling to the Richmond-based 4th Circuit, where a three-judge panel voted 2-1 on April 19, 2016 (822 F.3d 709), to reverse Judge Doumar’s decision.  The panel, applying a Supreme Court precedent called the Auer Doctrine, held that the district court should have deferred to the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the bathroom regulation because the regulation was ambiguous as to how transgender students should be accommodated and the court considered the Obama Administration’s interpretation to be “reasonable.”  A dissenting judge agreed with Judge Doumar that Title IX did not forbid the school district’s policy. The panel voted 2-1 to deny the school district’s motion for rehearing by the full 4th Circuit bench on May 31 (824 F.3d 450).

Shortly after the 4th Circuit issued its decision, the Education and Justice Departments sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to school administrators nationwide, advising them that the government would interpret Title IX to protect transgender students and providing detailed guidance on compliance with that requirement.  The letter informed recipients that failure to comply might subject them to Education Department investigations and possible loss of eligibility for federal funding.  This letter stirred up a storm of protest led by state officials in Texas, who filed a lawsuit joined by ten other states challenging the Obama Administration’s interpretation as inappropriate.  Subsequently another lawsuit was filed in Nebraska by state officials joined by several other states making the same argument.

Judge Doumar reacted quickly to the 4th Circuit’s reversal of his ruling, issuing a preliminary injunction on June 23 requiring the school district to allow Grimm to use boys’ restrooms while the case proceeded on the merits (2016 WL 3581852).  The 4th Circuit panel voted on July 12 to deny the school district’s motion to stay the preliminary injunction, but on August 3 the Supreme Court granted an emergency motion by the school district to stay the injunction while the district petitioned the Supreme Court to review the 4th Circuit’s decision (136 S. Ct. 2442).

It takes five votes on the Supreme Court to grant a stay of a lower court ruling pending appeal. Usually the Court issues no written opinion explaining why it is granting a stay.  In this case, however, Justice Stephen Breyer issued a one-paragraph statement explaining that he had voted for the stay as a “courtesy,” citing an earlier case in which the conservative justices (then numbering five) had refused to extend such a “courtesy” and grant a stay of execution to a death row inmate in a case presenting a serious 8th Amendment challenge to his death sentence.  Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan indicated that they would have denied the motion, so all four of the conservative justices had voted for the stay.  Since it takes five votes to grant a stay but only four votes to grant a petition for certiorari (a request to the Court to review a lower court decision), it was clear to all the justices that the school district’s subsequent petition for review would be granted, and it was, in part, on October 28 (137 S. Ct. 369).

Meanwhile, however, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor in Wichita Falls, Texas, had granted a “nationwide” preliminary injunction later in August in the Texas case challenging the Obama Administration guidance, blocking federal agencies from undertaking any new investigations or initiating any new cases involving gender identity discrimination claims under Title IX. Texas v. United States, 2016 WL 4426495 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 21, 2016).  The Obama Administration filed an appeal with the Houston-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, asking that court to cut down the scope of O’Connor’s injunction to cover just the states that had joined that lawsuit, pending litigation on the merits in that case.

The Gloucester school district’s petition for certiorari asked the Supreme Court to consider three questions: whether its doctrine of deferral to agency interpretations of regulations should be abandoned; whether, assuming the doctrine was retained, it should be applied in the case of an “unpublished” letter submitted by the agency in response to a particular lawsuit, and finally whether the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX and the regulation were correct.  The Court agreed only to address the second and third questions.

Donald Trump was elected a week later. During the election campaign, he stated that he would be revoking Obama Administration executive orders and administrative actions, so the election quickly led to speculation that the Gloucester County case would be affected by the new administration’s actions, since the Guidance had been subjected to strong criticism by Republicans.  This seemed certain after Trump announced that he would nominate Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama to be Attorney General, as Sessions has a long history of opposition to LGBT rights.  The announcement that Trump would nominate Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education fueled the speculation further, since her family was notorious for giving substantial financial support to anti-LGBT organizations.  It seemed unlikely that the Obama Administration’s Title IX Guidance would survive very long in a Trump Administration.

The other shoe dropped on February 22, just days before the deadline for submission of amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs on behalf of Gavin Grimm.   The Solicitor General’s office had not filed a brief in support of the school district at the earlier deadline, and there had been hope that the government would file a brief on behalf of Grimm or just stay out of the case.  According to numerous press reports, Secretary DeVos, who reportedly does not share her family’s anti-gay sentiments, had not wanted to withdraw the Guidance, but Attorney General Sessions insisted that the Obama Administration letters should be withdrawn, and Trump sided with Sessions in a White House showdown over the issue.

The February 22 “Dear Colleagues” letter was curiously contradictory, however. While announcing that the prior letters were “withdrawn” and their interpretation would not be followed by the government, the letter did not take a position directly on whether Title IX applied to gender identity discrimination claims.  Instead, it said that further study was needed on the Title IX issue, while asserting that the question of bathroom access should be left to states and local school boards and that schools were still obligated by Title IX not to discriminate against any students, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.  The letter was seemingly an attempt to compromise between DeVos’s position against bullying and discrimination and Sessions’ opposition to a broad reading of Title IX to encompass gender identity discrimination claims.  White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the question of Title IX’s interpretation was still being considered by the administration.

In any event, the Obama Administration interpretation to which the 4th Circuit panel had deferred was clearly no longer operative, effectively rendering moot the first question on which the Supreme Court had granted review.  Although the parties urged the Court to continue with the case and address the second question, it was not surprising that the Court decided not to do so.

The usual role of the Supreme Court is to decide whether to affirm or reverse a ruling on the merits of a case by the lower court. In this case, however, the 4th Circuit had not issued a ruling on the merits as such, since the basis for its ruling was deference to an administrative interpretation.  The 4th Circuit held that the Obama Administration’s interpretation was “reasonable,” but not that it was the only correct interpretation of the regulation or the statute.  The only ruling on the merits in the case so far is Judge Doumar’s original 2015 ruling that Grimm’s complaint failed to state a valid claim under Title IX.  Thus, it was not particularly surprising that the Supreme Court would reject the parties’ request to hear and decide the issue of interpretation of Title IX, and instead to send it back to the 4th Circuit to reconsider in light of the February 22 letter.  The Court usually grants review because there are conflicting rulings in the courts of appeals that need to be resolved. Here there are no such conflicting rulings under Title IX and the bathroom regulation, since the only other decisions on this question are by federal trial courts.

After issuing its February 22 letter, the Justice Department abandoned its appeal of the scope of Judge O’Connor’s preliminary injunction in the Texas case and asked the 5th Circuit to cancel a scheduled argument, which it did.  Furthermore, withdrawal of the Obama Administration Guidance rendered the Texas v. U.S. case moot, since the relief sought by the plaintiffs was a declaration that the Guidance was invalid, so Judge O’Connor will dissolve his injunction and the case will be withdrawn, as will be the Nebraska case.

In the meantime, there are several other relevant cases pending. The Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit and the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit will be considering appeals from district court rulings on transgender student rights from Ohio and Pennsylvania, there are cases pending before trial courts elsewhere, and there are multiple lawsuits pending challenging North Carolina’s H.B. 2, which among other things mandates that transgender people in that state use public restrooms consistent with their birth certificates.  One case challenging H.B. 2 was filed by the Obama Justice Department and may be abandoned by the Trump Administration.  But the 4th Circuit is shortly to hear arguments on an appeal filed by three transgender plaintiffs who are students or staff members at the University of North Carolina, who won a preliminary injunction when the trial judge in their case, filed by the ACLU and Lambda Legal, deferred to the Obama Administration Guidance as required by the 4th Circuit’s ruling in Grimm’s case, but declined to rule on the plaintiffs’ claim that H.B. 2 also violated their constitutional rights.  Carcano v. McCrory, 2016 WL 4508192 (M.D.N.C. Aug. 26, 2016). The appeal is focused on their constitutional claim and their argument that the preliminary injunction, which was narrowly focused on the three of them, should have been broadly applied to all transgender people affected by H.B. 2.  The case pending in the 3rd Circuit also focuses on the constitutional claim, as a trial judge in Pittsburgh ruled that a western Pennsylvania school district violated the 14th Amendment by adopting a resolution forbidding three transgender high school students from using restrooms consistent with their gender identity. Evancho v. Pine-Richland School District, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26767, 2017 WL 770619 (W.D. Pa. Feb. 27, 2017).

Meanwhile, Gavin Grimm is scheduled to graduate at the end of this spring semester, which may moot his case since he was seeking injunctive relief to allow him to use the boys’ restrooms, unless the court is convinced that a live controversy still exists because the school district’s policy continues in effect and will still prevent Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms if he come to the school to attend alumni events.

It seems likely that whatever happens next in the Gavin Grimm case, the issue of transgender people and their access to gender-identity-consistent public facilities will continue to be litigated in many federal courts in the months ahead, and may be back to the Supreme Court soon, perhaps as early as its 2017-18 Term. By then, the Court is likely to be back to a five-member conservative majority, assuming the Senate either confirms Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch or, if that stalls, another conservative nominee.  It is even possible that Trump may have a second vacancy to fill before this issue gets back to the Court, in which case the plaintiffs may face very long odds against success.