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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.

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.

7th Circuit Says Federal Law Protects Transgender Students

Posted on: May 31st, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld a trial court’s preliminary injunction that requires a Wisconsin school district to allow Ashton Whitaker, a transgender boy, to use the boys’ restroom facilities at his high school during his senior year.   Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 9362, 2017 WL 2331751.  Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams wrote the court’s opinion, joined by Circuit Judges Diane Pamela Wood and Ilana Rovner.  This May 30 decision is a landmark ruling: For the first time, a federal appeals court has ruled that Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which bans sex discrimination by educational institutions that get federal money, prohibits discrimination against transgender students. The court also ruled that a transgender student subjected to discriminatory treatment by a public school could sue under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

In a prior ruling involving Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy who is about to graduate from a Virginia high school, the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal courts should defer to the Obama Administration’s “reasonable” interpretation of Title IX providing protection to transgender students, but that ruling was vacated by the U.S. Supreme Court recently after the Trump Administration withdrew the Obama Administration’s interpretation after the Court had agreed to review the 4th Circuit’s decision.  Gavin Grimm’s appeal from a district court’s denial of his Title IX claim is still pending before the 4th Circuit, although the case may be mooted by his graduation.

Judges Williams and Wood were appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton. Judge Rovner was appointed by President George H. W. Bush. Throughout the opinion, Williams refers to the plaintiff as “Ash,” using the name he prefers and used throughout the papers filed in this lawsuit.

Judge Williams succinctly summarized what the case is about in her matter-of-fact opening sentence: “Ashton (‘Ash’) Whitaker is a 17 year-old high school senior boy who has what would seem like a simple request: to use the boys’ restroom while at school.” The request did not seem simple to Kenosha school authorities, however, because Whitaker is a transgender boy and, as far as the school district is concerned, should be treated as a girl unless or until Ash presents documentation of a completed surgical gender transition resulting in a new birth certificate designating him as male.  However, under the recognized standard of care for gender dysphoria, genital surgery may not be performed until the individual reaches age 18, and his birth state of Wisconsin will not issue such a birth certificate without proof of surgical sex reassignment, so there is no way that Ash Whitaker can satisfy the district’s unwritten policy for being treated as a boy while he is a student there.

According to the court’s opinion, Ash was in the 8th grade when he told his parents that “he is transgender and a boy.”  When he entered Tremper High School as a freshman in the fall of 2013, he identified himself as a boy, cutting his hair short, wearing masculine clothing, and using the name Ashton and male pronouns to refer to himself.  “In the fall of 2014, the beginning of his sophomore year, he told his teachers and his classmates that he is a boy and asked them to refer to him as Ashton or Ash and to use male pronouns,” wrote Williams.  He also began to see a therapist, who formally diagnosed him with gender dysphoria.  After his junior year, he began hormone replacement therapy under the supervision of an endocrinologist and petitioned a local court for a legal name change, which was granted in September 2016.

Ash and his mother began to meet with school authorities in the spring of his sophomore year to request that he be permitted to use the boys’ restrooms at school, but the authorities were resistant. Although the school district has no written policy on the matter, the administration informed him that he was not allowed to use the boys’ restroom, and that they would make an exception to the usual rules and allow him to use a gender-neutral restroom in the school’s main office.  This was not particularly helpful to him, since the main office was “quite a distance from his classrooms.”  Using that restroom between classes would make him late for class.  And, explained Judge Williams, “because Ash had publicly transitioned, he believed that using the girls’ restrooms would undermine his transition.”  And since he was the only student authorized to use the gender-neutral bathroom in the office, “he feared that using it would draw further attention to his transition and status as a transgender student at Tremper.”

There was also a medical complication. Ash has been diagnosed with vasovagal syncope, a condition that makes him susceptible to fainting or seizures if he becomes dehydrated, so he has to drink liquids frequently, which means he needs those bathroom breaks between classes and he can’t easily get by with “holding his water” throughout the day.  In an attempt to avoid having to use bathrooms during the day, he did attempt to restrict his water intake, but with predictable results: fainting and dizziness. In addition, the restrictions placed on him led him to suffer stress-related migraines, depression, and anxiety.  “He even began to contemplate suicide,” wrote Williams.

When he began his junior year in the fall of 2015, he decided to take a risk and use the boys’ restrooms, hoping not to be caught or disciplined. “For six months, he exclusively used the boys’ restrooms at school without incident,” wrote Williams, “but, in February 2016, a teacher saw him washing his hands at a sink in the boys’ restroom and reported it to the school’s administration.”  A guidance counselor contacted his mother and reiterated the restrictive restroom policy.  Ash and his mother met with the assistant principal, who stood firm, pointing out that Ash was listed on the school’s official records as female and any change would require “legal or medical documentation.”  Subsequent correspondence eventually clarified that written certification of his gender dysphoria and of his name change would not be sufficient for the school.  They wanted a male-designated birth certificate before they would make any change.

Despite this incident, Ash continued to use the boys’ restrooms, causing him anxiousness and depression. From the court’s description, it sounds like a “cat and mouse game” was going on at the high school, as security guards were “instructed to monitor Ash’s restroom use” and he sought to evade their gaze.  He was caught a few times and removed from classes to get dressed down by administrators, however, leading classmates and teachers to ask about what was going on.  In April 2016, the school expanded Ash’s restroom access to include two single-user, gender-neutral locked restrooms on the opposite side of the campus from where his classes were held.  He was the only student issued a key to these restrooms.  But again, due to their location they were of little use to him if he wanted to avoid being late for classes, and he felt further stigmatized, avoiding these restrooms entirely.  “In addition,” wrote Williams, “Ash began to fear for his safety as more attention was drawn to his restroom use and transgender status.”  He also began to suffer various other kinds of discrimination connected with the school’s insistence on treating him as a girl, but when he decided to take legal action he restricted his complaint to the bathroom issue.

Ash found a lawyer, who sent a demand letter to the school district, which declined to change its position. Then Ash filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, alleging a violation of Title IX.  But when it became clear that the administrative process would take too much time to provide relief for him before his senior year began, he withdrew the complaint and filed his lawsuit, seeking a preliminary injunction that would get him restroom access for his senior year.

The school district filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that neither Title IX nor the Constitution provided a legal cause of action for Ash. District Judge Pamela Pepper denied the motion to dismiss and granted Ash’s motion for a preliminary injunction that would allow him to use the boys’ restrooms at school while the case was pending.  A prerequisite for issuing the injunction was Judge Pepper’s determination that Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause both gave Ash legal claims on which he had a “better than negligible” chance of succeeding and that he would suffer irreparable injury, greater than any injury suffered by the school district, if he was denied this relief.

The school district attempted to appeal Judge Pepper’s denial of its motion to dismiss, but the 7th Circuit refused to consider that appeal last year.  A denial of a motion to dismiss a lawsuit is not a final judgment, because it just means that the lawsuit will continue, and if the defendant loses, then the defendant can appeal the final judgment.  Although there is a narrow set of circumstances in which a court of appeals will consider an appeal by a defendant whose motion to dismiss has been denied, this case did not fit within them, a point the court reiterated in its May 30 ruling.  The school district also appealed from Judge Pepper’s preliminary injunction, but the 7th Circuit panel unanimously affirmed Judge Pepper.

The court easily rejected the school district’s argument that Ash would not suffer irreparable harm because the district had made available to him gender-neutral restrooms. The school district also contested the expert testimony offered by a psychologist about the harm that its policies were inflicting on Ash.  Judge Williams quoted Dr. Stephanie Budge’s testimony that the district’s treatment of Ash “significantly and negatively impacted his mental health and overall well-being.”  Clearly, such an effect could not be compensated by an award of monetary damages at a later date, and was thus “irreparable” as that term is used by the courts.  Dr. Budge testified that the school district’s actions, including its bathroom policy, which identified Ash as transgender and therefore, “different,” were “directly causing significant psychological distress and place him at risk for experiencing life-long diminished well-being and life-functioning.”  The court of appeals found no clear error in Judge Pepper’s reliance on this expert testimony, which was not effectively rebutted by the school district.   Furthermore, his experience of using the boys’ restrooms for six months without any incident or complaints from students or teachers belied the school district’s argument that it would suffer serious injury if he were allowed to use those restrooms.

As to the likelihood that Ash would prevail on the merits of his claim at trial, the court did not have to strain much to reach that conclusion. Judge Williams noted that the 7th Circuit, like other courts of appeals, has looked to cases decided under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to determine the scope of the ban on sex discrimination.  On April 4, the 7th Circuit ruled in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339, an employment discrimination case, that a lesbian who was denied a faculty position because of her sexual orientation could bring a sex discrimination claim under Title VII.  That ruling was heavily based on a line of federal cases under Title VII that had adopted a broad interpretation of “discrimination because of sex,” and Judge Williams found that the logic of those cases had clearly overruled the 7th Circuit’s decision in Ulane v. Eastern Airlines, 742 F.2d 1081 (7th Cir. 1984), in which it had denied a Title VII claim by a transgender airline pilot.  The Ulane case predated the Supreme Court’s ruling in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), where the Court found that discrimination against a person because of their failure to conform to sex stereotypes could be found to violate Title VII.  In effect, the Court said that Title VII applied to discrimination because of gender, not just because of biological sex.

“By definition,” wrote Williams, “a transgender individual does not conform to the sex-based stereotypes of the sex that he or she was assigned at birth.” The judge cited a long list of federal court rulings that have reached this conclusion and applied Title VII to cases of gender identity discrimination.  The court rejected the school district’s argument that Congress’s failure to amend Title IX or Title VII to expressly protect people based on their transgender status required a different conclusion, and held that “Ash can demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits of his claim because he has alleged that the School District has denied him access to the boys’ restroom because he is transgender.”  She also pointed out that the school district was misrepresenting Ash’s claim when it argued that he may not “unilaterally declare” his gender, ignoring the medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

“Since his diagnosis,” wrote Judge Williams, “he has consistently lived in accordance with his gender identity. This lawsuit demonstrates that the decision to do so was not without cost or pain.  Therefore, we find that Ash has sufficiently established a probability of success on the merits of his Title IX claim.”  The court held similarly regarding Ash’s alternative constitutional equal protection claim, rejecting the school district’s argument that because it has a “rational basis” for adopting its restroom access rule – protecting the privacy of male students who did not want to use a restroom with a girl – it could prevail over Ash on the constitutional claim.  Because the court had concluded that a gender identity discrimination claim is in actuality a sex discrimination claim, it followed that the level of judicial review would be the same that courts use for sex discrimination claims: heightened scrutiny.  Under this standard, the discriminatory policy is presumed to be unconstitutional and the school district has the burden to show that it has an “exceedingly persuasive” justification for adopting the policy.

Such a justification cannot rely on “sheer conjecture and abstraction,” but that’s all the school district had. Judge Williams observed that the administration had never received any complaint from other students about Ash using the boys’ restrooms.  “This policy does nothing to protection the privacy rights of each individual student vis-à-vis students who share similar anatomy and it ignores the practical reality of how Ash, as a transgender boy, uses the bathroom: by entering a stall and closing the door.”  Indeed, Williams might have gone on to write, it would be ludicrous to suggest that a transgender boy is going to expose himself at a urinal, or stand at a urinal and glance over at other boys using the adjacent facilities.

“A transgender student’s presence in the restroom provides no more of a risk to other students’ privacy rights than the presence of an overly curious student of the same biological sex who decides to sneak glances at his or her classmates performing their bodily functions,” wrote the judge. “Or for that matter, any other student who uses the bathroom at the same time.  Common sense tells us that the communal restroom is a place where individuals act in a discreet manner to protect their privacy and those who have true privacy concerns are able to utilize a stall.”

In an interesting excursion into the hotly contested science of sexual identity, Williams added that the school administration’s insistence on treating people in accord with sex markers on birth certificates would not necessarily address their concerns. “The marker does not take into account an individual’s chromosomal makeup, which is also a key component of one’s biological sex,” she wrote.  “Therefore, one’s birth certificate could reflect a male sex, while the individual’s chromosomal makeup reflects another.  It is also unclear what would happen if an individual is born with the external genitalia of two sexes, or genitalia that are ambiguous in nature.  In those cases, it is clear that the marker on the birth certificate would not adequately account for or reflect one’s biological sex, which would have to be determined by considering more than what was listed on the paper.”

She also noted the lack of consistency among the various states in what they require to change birth certificates. Depending where a transgender student was born, they might be able to get a new certificate without a surgical sex reassignment procedure, thus defeating the school’s underlying purpose in relying on the birth certificate.  She also pointed out that the school district did not have a policy requiring newly registering students to present birth certificates, allowing them to present passports as identification as an alternative. The U.S. State Department no longer requires proof of sex-reassignment surgery for a transgender man to get a passport correctly identifying his gender, so a transgender boy who had obtained an appropriate passport could register in the Kenosha School District as a boy.

Thus, having found that Ash’s allegations fulfilled all the tests required for obtaining a preliminary injunction, the court denied the school district’s appeal and affirmed the injunctive relief. There were no immediate indications that the school district would seek en banc review or petition the Supreme Court for a stay.

Ash is represented by Robert Theine Pledl of Pledl & Cohn, Milwaukee; Joseph John Wardenski and Sasha M. Samberg-Champion, of Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC, Washington D.C.; and Shawn Thomas Meerkamper, Alison Pennington and Ilona M. Turner, with the Transgender Law Center of Oakland, California. Amicus briefs in support of Ash’s case were received from a variety of groups representing school administrators, parents, students, and LGBT rights organizations.  Among those joining in were Lambda Legal, PFLAG, Gay-Straight Alliances, and women’s rights groups, with several major law firms stepping up to author the amicus briefs.  The only amicus support for the school district came from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-gay religious litigation group that has championed lawsuits attacking school districts for allowing transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.

Court Recognizes Gender Dysphoria Discrimination Claims under Americans With Disabilities Act

Posted on: May 19th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

For the first time, a federal court has recognized that individuals suffering from gender dysphoria are entitled to protection against workplace discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a federal law that requires employers to reasonably accommodate employees’ disabilities. The May 18 ruling by U.S. District Judge Joseph F. Leeson, Jr., accepted an argument by attorneys for Kate Lynn Blatt, a transgender woman, that a provision in the ADA excluding protection for “gender identity disorders” should be narrowly construed to avoid a potential violation of the Equal Protection Clause.  Blatt v. Cabela’s Retail, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75665 (E.D. Pa.).

Blatt, who is also alleging sex discrimination by her employer, Cabela’s Retail, Inc., was diagnosed with gender dysphoria in October 2005. She alleges that her gender dysphoria “substantially limits one or more of her major life activities, including, but not limited to, interacting with others, reproducing, and social and occupational function.”   The ADA provides protection for people suffering from physical or mental impairments that substantially limit one or more of their major life activities.

Blatt claims that shortly after she was hired by Cabela’s in September 2006, she began to experience discrimination, culminating in her termination in February 2017. The court’s decision does not provide much factual detail, because it is narrowly focused on Cabela’s motion to dismiss the portion of Blatt’s complaint that relies on the ADA.

Part of the opposition to the ADA in Congress in 1990 focused on the possibility that the proposed law could be interpreted to prohibit discrimination against sexual minorities – gays, lesbian, bisexuals, and transgender people – on the theory that “abnormal” sexuality was a “disability” within the meaning of the statute. To combat this argument, the bill was amended to provide that “homosexuality and bisexuality are not impairments and as such are not disabilities under this Act.”  The provision goes on to say that the term “disability” “shall not include transvestism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments, or other sexual behavior disorders.”  It also excludes protection for people afflicted by “compulsive gambling, kleptomania, or pyromania; or psychoactive substance use disorders resulting from current illegal use of drugs.”

This provision has long been considered to exclude any protection for transgender people related to their gender identity under the ADA. During the debate over the bill, it was made clear that this would not deny protection to transgender people who suffer from other disabling conditions, such as blindness, deafness and the like, not related to their gender identity.

Cabela’s asked the court to dismiss the two ADA counts of Blatt’s four-count complaint: failure to accommodate her gender dysphoria, and retaliation against her for reporting discrimination and requesting accommodations for her disability. Cabela’s argued that because of the exclusionary provision, any claim related to Blatt’s gender identity was excluded from coverage.  Cabela’s was not seeking in this motion to dismiss Blatt’s sex discrimination claims under Title VII.

Blatt’s attorneys countered with the argument that denying protection for a disability without a rational justification would violate Blatt’s right to equal protection of the laws under the 14th Amendment, but that the court could avoid having to consider the constitutionality of the statute by interpreting it to cover Blatt’s claims.

Judge Leesom accepted Blatt’s argument, finding that there is a “fairly possible” interpretation of the exclusionary provision, “namely, one in which the term gender identity disorders is read narrowly to refer to only the condition of identifying with a different gender, not to encompass (and therefore exclude from ADA protection) a condition like Blatt’s gender dysphoria, which goes beyond merely identifying with a different gender and is characterized by clinically significant stress and other impairments that may be disabling.”

Leesom breaks down the text of the exclusion into “two distinct categories: first, non-disabling conditions that concern sexual orientation or identity, and second, disabling conditions that are associated with harmful or illegal conduct. If the term gender identity disorders were understood, as Cabela’s suggests, to encompass disabling conditions such as Blatt’s gender dysphoria, then the term would occupy an anomalous place in the statute, as it would exclude from the ADA conditions that are actually disabling but that are not associated with harmful or illegal conduct.  But under the alternative, narrower interpretation of the term, this anomaly would be resolved, as the term gender identity disorders would belong to the first category described above.”

The judge found that this interpretation was consistent with controlling precedents in the 3rd Circuit, which covers the federal courts in Pennsylvania.  The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals has endorsed the view that the ADA, as “a remedial statute, designed to eliminate discrimination against the disabled in all facets of society, must be broadly construed to effectuate its purposes.”  This requires a narrow reading of any exclusionary provisions.  This is also consistent with 2008 Amendments to the ADA that emphasized the Congressional purpose to allow a liberal interpretation of the concept of disability so as to provide maximum protection against unjustified workplace discrimination.

Leesom held that because a narrow interpretation of the exclusionary provision would avoid raising the constitutional equal protection question, it was his “duty to adopt it,” and the motion to dismiss should be denied.

This ruling does not necessarily mean that Blatt will ultimately win her case, but it will remove the employer’s argument that her case cannot be brought under the ADA.   Even if she had lost this motion and suffered dismissal of her ADA claim, Blatt could still litigate a sex discrimination claim, as the 3rd Circuit has accepted the argument that anti-transgender discrimination may be attacked as sex discrimination under Title VII by using the sex-stereotype theory that was approved by the Supreme Court in 1989 in the Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins case.  But finding ADA coverage is very important, because that statute imposes a duty of reasonable accommodation to enable an employee with disabilities to work, while Title VII does not impose any gender-related accommodation requirements other than, arguably, some accommodation to pregnancy and childbirth.  The ADA also has provisions governing medical testing and confidentiality of medical information, which may be useful for individuals dealing with gender dysphoria as well.

Blatt is represented by Sidney L. Gold, a Philadelphia lawyer, with assistance from the Civil Justice Clinic of Quinnipiac University School of Law, as well as Neelima Vanguri, an attorney at Gold’s law firm.

West Virginia Supreme Court Sharply Split on State Hate Crimes Law Interpretation

Posted on: May 15th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

A sharply-divided West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals voted 3-2 on May 9 to reject the application of the state’s Hate Crimes Law to the criminal prosecution of Steward Butler, who reacted to two gay men kissing each other on a sidewalk in Huntington, West Virginia, in the early hours of April 5, 2015, by exiting his car and slugging both men in the face. State v. Butler, 2017 WL 1905948, 2017 W. Va. LEXIS 333 (May 9, 2017).

W.Va. Code Section 61-2-9(c), which was enacted in 1987, makes it a felony to willfully injure somebody because of their “race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation or sex.” According to the opinion for the majority of the court by Chief Justice Allen H. Loughry, II, since 1987 members of the legislature have introduced 26 bills to amend the law to add “sexual orientation” to the list, but none has succeeded.

Butler was positively identified as the perpetrator because one of the victims managed to record part of the assault on his cellphone. “That video recording,” wrote the court, “as well as the statements taken from the defendant’s companions, were used to identify the defendant as the alleged perpetrator.”  The Cabell County prosecutor presented the case to a grand jury, which charged Butler with two counts of battery and two violations of the Hate Crimes Law.  Butler moved to dismiss the Hate Crimes counts, arguing that the statute did not apply to assaults motivated by the sexual orientation of the victim.

Circuit Judge Paul T. Farrell granted Butler’s motion, dismissing the hate crime counts. He found that “sex” and “sexual orientation” are “two distinct categories of potential discrimination” and that the legislature’s decision not to add “sexual orientation” to the statute, when many other states had done so, clearly signified its intention, so the court “cannot expand the word ‘sex’ to include ‘sexual orientation.’”

The local prosecutor appealed this ruling. Perhaps not surprisingly, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office filed a brief supporting the dismissal, while Lambda Legal, which has been actively litigating the issue whether “sex” includes “sexual orientation” in discrimination statutes, filed a brief supporting the local prosecutor.

A bare majority of the Supreme Court agreed with Judge Farrell that the hate crime counts must be dismissed. Chief Justice Loughry rejected any contention that the word “sex” as used in the statute was “ambiguous.”  As such, he wrote, it was not subject to “interpretation” but must be applied according to its “plain meaning.”

“Affording the undefined term ‘sex’ its common and ordinary meaning,” he wrote, “we find the word to be clear and unambiguous and to have a very different meaning and import than the term ‘sexual orientation.’” To support this proposition, he cited definitions from four dictionaries, noted that all but a five states have passed hate crimes laws but that no court has ever before interpreted those that do not specifically mention “sexual orientation” to apply to crimes committed because a victim was lesbian or gay.  He also repeated several times that the failure of the legislature to pass any of the 26 bills proposed to add “sexual orientation” to the statute evidenced legislative intent not to include it.  Furthermore, he wrote, in a criminal case the court should use the “rule of lenity” to ensure that people have clear notice of what conduct is condemned by the statute.  He also insisted that the court’s ruling did not imply approval of Butler’s conduct, and pointed out that Butler is still charged with two counts of battery.

“It is imperative to remember that it is not for this Court arbitrarily to read into a statute that which it does not say,” wrote Loughry. “Just as courts are not to eliminate through judicial interpretation words that were purposely included, we are obligated not to add to statutes something the legislature purposely omitted.”

Justice Margaret L. Davis, joined by Justice Robin Jean Workman, dissented in an opinion that brought together the recent opinions accepting the proposition that discriminating because of a person’s sexual orientation necessarily involves sex discrimination. As far as the dissenters are concerned, the term “sex” in the statute is not ambiguous but the prohibition of willfully injuring somebody because of their sex clearly includes the facts of this case.

Justice Davis built her argument by running through the developing case law, starting with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1989 Price Waterhouse decision and ending with 2nd Circuit Chief Justice Katzmann’s recent concurring opinion in Christiansen v. Omnicom Corporation.  This summary culminated with the following bold assertion:  “If a man stands on a corner kissing a man and is beaten because he is kissing a man, has he been assaulted because of his sex?  Yes, but not simply because he possesses male anatomical parts; rather, the crime occurred because he was perceived to be acting outside the social expectations of how a man should behave with a man.  But for his sex, he would not have been attacked.”

“The indictment in this case properly alleged the attack occurred because of the victims’ sex,” she continued. “Certain individuals are targeted for violence because they are perceived to violate socially-established protocols for gender and sex roles.  The perpetrators in such instances have drawn conclusions that the victim has contravened certain unspoken rules, and the bias-motivated crime thus ensues.”

Quoting from the 7th Circuit’s recent decision in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, she wrote, “While the majority might find the crime was actually committed ‘because of sexual orientation,’ it is a ‘common-sense reality that it is actually impossible to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation without discriminating on the basis of sex.’”

She accused the majority of concluding its analysis “prematurely. Simply finding the absence of those two magic words fatal to the State’s contention is the most effortless answer this Court could conjure. But while an answer without more in-depth analysis may be the path of least resistance, it also gives the shortest shrift to critical thinking. . .  The pertinent question is not whether the statute contains the words ‘sexual orientation.’  Rather, it is whether the crime was committed because of the victims’ sex.  The phrase ‘because of sex’ encompasses the actions taken against the victims in this case.”

Justice Davis rejected any argument that the developments in discrimination law could not be carried over to the criminal law context. She pointed out that developments in discrimination law and criminal law have been intertwined over the years.  “Anti-hate legislation has typically taken the form of either penalty enhancement or independent legislation,” she wrote.  “Both types generally define the unlawful acts as acts motivated ‘because of’ (‘based on,’ ‘on the basis of,’ ‘by reason of,’ etc.) . . . [certain protected statuses]. This form is similar to Title VII, the federal employment discrimination statute, a point Chief Justice Rehnquist invoked in upholding the Wisconsin [criminal] statute” in Wisconsin v. Mitchell in 1993.

She also pointed out that allowing the hate crime counts to proceed did not put the Supreme Court in the position of “both judge and jury,” as it would still be up to the prosecutor to prove the assertions of discriminatory intent required by the statute. “Allowing Counts I and III to stand would provide the prosecution ample time to prove the assertions, the jury would be properly instructed on evidentiary requirements and burdens of proof, and the State would be required to prove its allegations of statutory violation beyond a reasonable doubt.  At this juncture, however, the evaluation must concentrate upon the sufficiency of the indictment for a hate crime, and it is my firm belief that the majority of this Court adopted an overly narrow focus, metaphorically missing the forest for the trees.”

Because this decision did not address any federal constitutional issues, it cannot be appealed by the prosecutor to the U.S. Supreme Court. Theoretically, one might argue that the majority’s decision violates the equal protection rights of gay victims, as the court has interpreted the statute to protect straight people from being attacked because of their sex but to deny the same protection to gay people, for no reason other than the legislature’s repeated rejection of amendments to extend such protection to gay people.  But as far as one can tell from reading the majority and dissenting opinions, nobody made that argument in the West Virginia courts, so it was not preserved for review.

Autistic Student Subjected to Homophobic Bullying May Proceed on Title IX and Equal Protection Claims

Posted on: April 30th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

In an early application of the 7th Circuit’s ruling in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339 (Apr. 4, 2017), U.S. District Judge James D. Peterson of the Western District of Wisconsin (which is in the 7th Circuit) ruled that an autistic man who used to be a student in the Eau Claire Area School District can maintain his action under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause on a claim that he was subjected to harassment based on sex-stereotyping and a perception by other students that he was gay, and that school authorities who were informed of the harassment did not take any reasonable steps to address the situation.  Bowe v. Eau Claire Area School District, 2017 WL 1458822, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61496 (D. Wis., April 24, 2017).

Connor Bowe also asserted claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, as well as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Wrote Judge Peterson, summarizing the complaint, “Bowe’s schoolmates bullied him for many years.  They called him names, such as ‘gay,’ ‘queer,’ ‘fag,’ ‘pussy,’ ‘stupid,’ and ‘butt boy.’  They shoved him and threw things at him.  ‘At some point prior to’ February 2011, when Bowe was about to turn 14, [Principal Tim O’Reilly] and non-party Kevin Stevens, another District official, told some of Bowe’s classmates that Bowe suffered from autism.  Bowe’s parents did not consent to the disclosure of Bowe’s disability.  The bullying continued, and in fact grew more serious.  Between February 2011 and February 2014, Bowe’s classmates called him ‘stupid,’ ‘fat,’ ‘weak,’ ‘fag,’ ‘pussy,’ ‘shit stain,’ and ‘bubble butt.’  They accused him of having ‘mental deficiencies’ and told him to ‘go fucking die.’  They threw things at him, threatened to hurt him, ‘physically assaulted him,’ threw eggs at his house, and left a bag of feces at his house.  Bowe and his parents complained to [Principal David] Oldenberg, O’Reilly, and other District officials about the bullying multiple times a year each year from 2010 to 2015, but no District official took any action to end the bullying.  Because of the bullying, Bowe’s grades fell significantly and he was prevented from fully participating in some of his classes.”  We have reproduced the court’s summary in full so that readers can appreciate the severity of abuse Bowe claims to have suffered.

Bowe filed his complaint on November 14, 2016. The defendants moved to dismiss.  They argued, as to the ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims, that Bowe had not alleged “facts sufficient to show that he was harassed based on his disability or that the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive,” according to Judge Peterson’s description of the motion.  Who are they kidding?  They tried to argue that because just a few of the items of verbal harassment might be linked to Bowe’s autism, he could not state a claim under the disability discrimination laws.  Peterson rejected that argument.  “When some incidents of harassment are alleged to be based on the plaintiff’s protected status, the court may consider allegations of other, more generalized harassment when determining whether the alleged harassment was severe enough to state a peer-harassment claim.  One may reasonably infer from Bowe’s allegations that the totality of the harassment he endured was so severe that it changed the conditions of his education and created an abusive education environment.”

As to the Title IX sex discrimination claim, Peterson rejected the defendants’ argument that “Bowe has not plausibly alleged that he was harassed on the basis of sex.” To the contrary, he wrote, “As both parties recognize, allegations that a plaintiff was ‘harassed because of a failure to adhere to specific sexual stereotypes’ are sufficient to satisfy this element,” citing Hively.  He noted a district court decision from Indiana that found that it was reasonable to infer harassment because of “failure to adhere to traditional male stereotypes” when a victim was called “gay” and “faggot” by bullies.  While conceding the defendants’ contention that some courts have described as a “subtle” issue under Title IX the inference to be drawn when “young children” use “gendered words” to bully other children, Peterson pointed out that the cases defendants were relying on “show that the use of such words by middle- and high-school students may constitute sexual harassment.”  Here, he wrote, “the consistent pattern of gender stereotype slurs alleged by Bowe makes it easy to infer that his classmates harassed him because of his failure to adhere to traditional gender stereotypes.”

In addition to his statutory claims, Bowe sought to hold two District officials liable for an equal protection violation under the 14th Amendment, asserting a “class-of-one” equal protection claim. Defendants argued that he had failed to allege that he was treated differently from others similarly situated.  (What?  Are they claiming that all students who complained of harassment were similarly blown off or ignored by school administrators?)  Peterson rejected this argument, relying on Miller v. City of Monona, 784 F.3d 1113 (7th Cir. 2015), for the proposition that “‘plaintiffs alleging class-of-one equal protection claims do not need to identify specific examples of similarly situated person in their complaints,’ at least when the complaint does not otherwise reveal a rational basis for the difference in treatment.”  Here, wrote Peterson, “Bowe alleges that O’Reilly and Oldenberg knew about the ongoing harassment but took no action to stop it.  Taking these allegations as true, there is no rational basis for their treatment of Bowe.  So Bowe’s equal protection claims will survive defendants’ motion to dismiss.”

The defendants also argued that because Bowe could have asserted claims under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), he was required to file his charges with the Department of Education and exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit, but Peterson was unpersuaded, finding that Bowe’s claims arose independently under the various discrimination laws he cited, and did not require administrative exhaustion. At this point, the now 20-year-old Bowe is seeking a remedy for past actions, not suing under IDEA for an order to the school district to ensure that he receive the “free appropriate public education” promised under IDEA.

However, Peterson noted that Bowe “made no argument in support” of his direct ADA and Rehabilitation Act claims (and a racial discrimination claim under Title VI) in responding to the motion to dismiss, and so those claims were waived and would be dismissed in response to the district’s motion. Peterson also denied Bowe’s request to allow him to file an amended complaint to make up for any pleading deficiencies, finding that the original complaint, which withstood the motion to dismiss under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause, was adequate to support his claims for the relief he is seeking.  Thus, Peterson denied the defendants’ motion to dismiss the Title IX and Equal Protection claims, on which the case can proceed.

Bowe is represented by Paul A. Kinne, of Gingras, Cates & Luebke, S.C., Madison, WI.

Lecture for Investiture as Robert F. Wagner Professor of Labor and Employment Law

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

Arthur S. Leonard, Lecture for Investiture as Robert F. Wagner Professor of Labor and Employment Law, New York Law School, April 26, 2017

A Battle Over Statutory Interpretation: Title VII and Claims of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination

I feel particularly honored to have my name associated with that of United States Senator Robert F. Wagner, Sr., NYLS Class of 1900, a hero of the New Deal whose legislative leadership gave us such important achievements as the National Labor Relations Act – commonly known among labor law practitioners as the Wagner Act – and the Social Security Act — laws that have shaped our nation for generations.   Senator Wagner was an immigrant who made an indelible mark on the United States. I hope that in some small way I have made a contribution that makes this named chair fitting.

I decided to select a topic for this talk that would bring together the two major areas of my teaching and scholarship: labor and employment law, and sexuality law. These intersect in the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans employment discrimination against an individual because of his or her sex, will be open to claims by job applicants and workers that they have suffered discrimination because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. We are at a decisive point in the judicial battle over that question, having achieved just weeks ago the breakthrough of our first affirmative appellate ruling on the sexual orientation question, following several years of encouraging developments on the gender identity question.

To understand the significance of this, we have to go back more than half a century, to the period after World War II when the modern American gay rights movement began stirring with the protests of recent military veterans against unequal benefits treatment, with the formation of pioneering organizations like the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles and New York and The Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco, and with the vital behind-the-scenes work undertaken by gay scholars as the great law reform effort of the Model Penal Code was being launched by the American Law Institute. That postwar period of the late 1940s and 1950s played out alongside the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, for which the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a signal achievement.

The early gay rights advocacy groups had their lists of goals, and some kind of protection against discrimination was prominent among them, but that task seemed monumental, at a time when there was no federal statute prohibiting employment discrimination of any kind. Until Illinois adopted the Model Penal Code in 1960, which effectively repealed criminal sanctions for private consensual gay sex, it was a crime in every state; a serious felony with long prison sentences in many. President Dwight Eisenhower issued an executive order shortly after taking office banning the employment of “homosexuals” and “sexual perverts” in the federal civil service. A major immigration law passed during the 1950s for the first time barred homosexuals from immigrating to the U.S. and qualifying for citizenship by labeling us as being “afflicted by psychopathic personality,” making us excludable on medical grounds. The military barred gay people from serving on similar grounds, and many lines of work that required state licensing and determinations of moral fitness systematically excluded LGBT people. To be an ‘openly gay’ lawyer or doctor was virtually unthinkable in the 1950s and on into the 1960s.

When Congress was considering the landmark civil rights bill, first introduced during the Kennedy Administration and shepherded into law by Lyndon Johnson, the idea that lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people might seek or obtain assistance rather than condemnation from Congress seemed a pipe dream. None of the legislators involved with the bill proposed protecting members of these groups from discrimination. Title VII, the provision of the bill dealing with employment discrimination, was limited in its original form to discrimination because of race or color, religion, or national origin. A floor amendment, introduced by Howard Smith of Virginia, a conservative Southern Democrat who was opposed to the bill, proposed to add “sex” to the prohibited grounds for discrimination. The amendment carried, the bill passed, and it went to the Senate where it was held up by one of the longest filibusters in history – at a time when filibusters involved unbroken floor debate by the opponents of a pending measure, with no vote on the merits until the Chamber was thoroughly exhausted and no opponent could be found to continue speaking. The leadership of the Senate, trying to avoid having the bill bottled up in committees headed by conservative senior Southern senators, had sent the bill direct to the floor with a tight limit on amendments. Thus committee reports that would have provided a source of legislative history on the meaning of “sex” in the bill are missing. The only floor amendment relating to the addition of “sex” to Title VII was to clarify that pay practices that were authorized under the Equal Pay Act, which had been passed the year before, would not be held to violate Title VII. The statute contained no definition of “sex,” and in the early years after its passage, the general view, held by the courts and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was that the ban on sex discrimination simply prohibited employers from treating women worse than men – with little agreement about what that meant. In fact, in an early interpretive foray, the Supreme Court decided that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination against women because they became pregnant. The resulting public outcry inspired Congress to amend the statute to make clear that discrimination against a woman because of pregnancy or childbirth was considered to be discrimination because of sex.

Early attempts by gay or transgender people to pursue discrimination claims under Title VII all failed. The EEOC and the courts agreed that protecting people from discrimination because of their sexual orientation or transgender status was not intended by Congress. They embraced a literalistic “plain language” interpretation of Title VII, including a narrow biological understanding of sex.

But something began to happen as the courts considered a wider variety of sex discrimination claims. It became clear that a simplistic concept of sex would not be adequate to achieve the goal of equality of opportunity in the workplace. Legal theorists had been advancing the concept of a “hostile environment” as a form of discrimination, first focusing on the open hostility that many white workers showed to black, Latino and Asian workers in newly-integrated workplaces. During the 1970s the courts began to expand that concept to women who experienced hostility in formerly all-male workplaces as well. Lower federal courts were divided about whether such “atmospherics” of the workplace could be considered terms or conditions of employment when they didn’t directly involve refusals to hire or differences in pay or work assignments. Finally the Supreme Court broke that deadlock in 1986, holding in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson that a woman who experienced workplace hostility so severe that it could be said to affect her terms and conditions of employment would have a sex discrimination claim under Title VII, and subsequent cases clarified that the plaintiff did not have to show a tangible injury, although a finding that working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person would quit would clearly meet the test of a hostile environment. Some courts began to extend this reasoning to complaints by men, in situations where male co-workers subjected them to verbal and even physical harassment.

The Court also began to grapple with the problem of sex stereotypes, and how easily employers and co-workers could fall into stereotyped thinking to the disadvantage of minorities and women. Stereotypes about young mothers’ ability to balance work and home obligations, stereotypes about the ability of women to do physically challenging working, stereotypes about female longevity and the costs of retirement plans – all of these issues came before the Court and ultimately led it to expand the concept of sex discrimination more broadly than legislators of the mid-1960s might have imagined.

The key stereotyping case for building a theory of protection for sexual minorities was decided in 1989 – Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. Ann Hopkins’ bid for partnership was denied because some partners of the firm considered her inadequately feminine. They embraced a stereotype about how a woman partner was supposed to look and behave. Hopkins, with her loud and abrasive manner and appearance, failed to conform to that stereotype. Communicating the firm’s decision to pass over her partnership application, the head of her office told her she could improve her chances for the next round by dressing more femininely, walking more femininely, toning down her speech, wearing make-up and jewelry, having her hair styled. Her substantial contributions to the firm and her leadership in generating new business counted for little, when decision-makers decided she was inadequately feminine to meet their expectations. In an opinion by Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., the Court accepted Hopkins’ argument that allowing such considerations to affect the partnership decision could be evidence of a prohibited discriminatory motivation under Title VII. The Court’s opinion embraced the idea that discrimination because of “gender,” not just discrimination because of biological sex, came within the scope of Title VII’s prohibition. The statutory policy included wiping away gender stereotypes that created barriers to equal opportunity for women in the workplace.

Although Ann Hopkins was not a lesbian and nothing was said about homosexuality in her case, the implications of the ruling became obvious over time as federal courts dealt with a variety of stereotyping claims. A person who suffered discrimination because she did not appear or act the way people expected a woman to appear or act was protected, and that sounded to lots of people like a description of discrimination against transgender people and some – but perhaps not all – lesbians, gay men and bisexuals. The argument seemed particularly strong when an employer discriminated against a person who was hired appearing and acting as a man and then began to transition to living life as a woman.

At the same time, legal academics had begun to publish theoretical arguments supporting the idea that discrimination against gay people was a form of sex discrimination. Among the earliest were Professor Sylvia Law of New York University, whose 1988 article in the Wisconsin Law Review, titled “Homosexuality and the Social Meaning of Gender,” suggested that anti-gay discrimination was about “preserving traditional concepts of masculinity and femininity. Law’s pioneering work was quickly followed by the first of many articles by Andrew Koppelman, first in a student note he published in the Yale Law Journal in 1988 titled “The Miscegenation Analogy: Sodomy Law as Sex Discrimination,” later in his 1994 article in the New York University Law Review titled “Why Discrimination Against Lesbians and Gay Men is Sex Discrimination.” Both Koppelman, now a professor at Northwestern University, and Law proposed theoretical arguments for treating anti-gay discrimination as sex discrimination.

Seizing upon the Price Waterhouse precedent, transgender people and gay people began to succeed in court during the 1990s by arguing that their failure to conform to gender stereotypes was the reason they were denied hiring or continued employment, desirable assignments or promotions. A strange dynamic began to grow in the courts, as judges repeated, over and over again, that Title VII did not prohibit discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, as such, but that it did prohibit discrimination against a person because of his or her failure to conform to gender stereotypes and expectations, regardless of the plaintiff’s sexual orientation. Many of the courts insisted, however, that there was one gender stereotype that could not be the basis of a Title VII claim – that men should be attracted only to women, and women should be attracted only to men. To allow a plaintiff to assert such a claim would dissolve the line that courts were trying to preserve between sex stereotyping claims and sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination claims. Decades of past precedents stood in the way of acknowledging the unworkability of that line.

Ten years after the Price Waterhouse decision, the Supreme Court decided another sex discrimination case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, with an opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia that helped to fuel the broadening interpretation of Title VII. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that a man who is subjected to workplace harassment of a sexual nature by other men could not bring a hostile environment sex discrimination claim under Title VII. The court of appeals reasoned that Congress intended in 1964 to prohibit discrimination against women because they were women or men because they were men, and that such a limited intent could not encompass claims of same-sex harassment, which would be beyond the expectations of the legislators who passed that law. In reversing this ruling, Justice Scalia, who was generally skeptical about the use of legislative history to interpret statutes, wrote for the Court that the interpretation of Title VII was not restricted to the intentions of the 1964 Congress. While conceding that same-sex harassment was not one of the “evils” that Congress intended to attack by passing Title VII, he wrote:

“Statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils, and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed. Title VII prohibits discrimination because of sex in employment. This must extend to sex-based discrimination of any kind that meets the statutory requirements.”

Thus, as our collective, societal understanding of sex, gender, sexuality, identity and orientation broadens, our concept of sex discrimination as prohibited by Title VII also broadens. With the combined force of Price Waterhouse and Oncale, some federal courts began to push the boundaries even further during the first decade of the 21st century.

By the time the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled in 2012 in Macy v. Holder, a federal sector sex discrimination case, that a transgender plaintiff could pursue a Title VII claim against a division of the Justice Department, its opinion could cite a multitude of federal court decisions in support of that conclusion, including two Title VII decisions by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals involving public safety workers who were transitioning, and a 2011 ruling by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals that a Georgia state agency’s discrimination against an employee because she was transitioning violated the Equal Protection Clause as sex discrimination. There were also federal appellate rulings to similar effect under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Violence against Women Act, as well as numerous trial court rulings under Title VII. So the EEOC was following the trend, not necessarily leading the parade, when it found that discrimination against a person because of their gender identity was a form of sex discrimination.

After the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, striking down a state sodomy law under the 14th Amendment, and further rulings in 2013 and 2015 in the Windsor and Obergefell cases, leading to a national right to marry for same-sex couples, the persistence by many courts in asserting that Title VII did not prohibit sexual orientation discrimination appeared increasingly archaic. Just weeks after the Obergefell decision, the EEOC issued another landmark ruling in July 2015, David Baldwin v. Anthony Foxx, reversing half a century of EEOC precedent and holding that sexual orientation discrimination claims were “necessarily” sex discrimination claims covered by Title VII. The Commission ruled that a gay air traffic controller could bring a Title VII claim against the Department of Transportation, challenging its refusal to hire him for a full-time position at the Miami air traffic control center because of his sexual orientation.

Building on the Price Waterhouse, Oncale and Macy decisions, the EEOC embraced several alternative theories to support this ruling. One was the now well-established proposition that an employer may not rely on “sex-based considerations” or “take gender into account” when making employment decisions, unless sex was a bona fide occupational qualification – a narrow statutory exception that is rarely relevant to a sexual orientation or gender identity case.

“Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is premised on sex-based preferences, assumptions, expectations, stereotypes, or norms,” wrote the EEOC. “Sexual orientation as a concept cannot be defined or understood without reference to sex. Sexual orientation is inseparable from and inescapably linked to sex and, therefore, allegations of sexual orientation discrimination involve sex-based considerations.” By the summer of 2015, the agency was able to cite several federal trial court decisions applying these concepts in particular cases.

Another theory was based on the associational discrimination theory. Courts had increasingly accepted the argument that discrimination against a person because he or she was in an interracial relationship was discrimination because of race. The analogy was irresistible: Discriminating against somebody because they are in a same-sex relationship must be sex discrimination, because it involved taking the employee’s sex into account. Denying a job because a man is partnered with a man rather than with a woman means that his sex, as well as his partner’s sex, was taken into account by the employer in making the decision.

Finally, the Commission embraced the stereotyping theory that some courts had refused to fully embrace: that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination because it necessarily involves discrimination based on gender stereotypes, not just those involving appearance, mannerisms, grooming, or speech, but also stereotypes about appropriate sexual attractions. Quoting a Massachusetts federal trial court ruling, the agency wrote, “Sexual orientation discrimination and harassment are often, if not always, motivated by a desire to enforce heterosexually defined gender norms. . . The harasser may discriminate against an openly gay co-worker, or a co-worker that he perceives to be gay, whether effeminate or not, because he thinks, ‘real’ men should date women, and not other men.” Professor Law’s theoretical proposition of 1988 was now surfacing in court and agency rulings a quarter century later.

The EEOC also rejected the view that adopting this expanded definition of sex discrimination required new congressional action, pointing out that the courts had been expanding the definition of sex discrimination under Title VII continually since the 1970s, with minimal intervention or assistance from Congress.

Since 2015 the issue of sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII has risen to the level of the circuit courts of appeals. In most of the circuits, there are precedents dating back decades holding that sexual orientation claims may not be litigated under Title VII. These precedents are softened in some circuits that have accept discrimination claims from gay men or lesbians who plausibly asserted that their visible departure from gender stereotypes provoked discrimination against them. But many of these appeals courts have strained to draw a line between the former and the latter, and have rejected stereotyping claims where they perceived them as attempts to “bootstrap” a sexual orientation claim into Title VII territory.

Ironically, one judge who emphatically rejected such a case several years ago with the bootstrapping objection, Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit, is the author of a concurring opinion in this new round of circuit court rulings in which he argues that it is legitimate for federal courts to “update” statutes without waiting for Congress in order to bring them into line with current social trends. This was part of the 7th Circuit’s en banc ruling in Kimberly Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, the April 4, 2017, decision that is the first by a federal appeals court to embrace all aspects of the EEOC’s Baldwin decision and hold that a lesbian could pursue a sexual orientation claim under Title VII. Posner’s argument echoes one made decades ago by Guido Calabresi, then a professor at Yale, now a judge on the 2nd Circuit, in a series of lectures published as a book titled “A Common Law for the Age of Statutes,” in which he argued that legislative inertia would justify courts in updating old statutes to meet contemporary needs. Although Posner did not cite Calabresi’s book, his argument is much the same. He quoted both Justice Scalia’s statement from Oncale and an earlier iteration of similar sentiments in an opinion by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes from 1920, in which Holmes wrote: “The case before us must be considered in the light of our whole experience and not merely in that of what was said a hundred years ago.”

The federal circuit courts follow the rule that when a three-judge panel of the circuit interprets a statute, it creates a binding circuit precedent which can be reversed only by the full bench of the court in an en banc ruling, or by the Supreme Court, or by Congress changing the statute. The Hively ruling reversed a three-judge panel decision that had rejected the plaintiff’s Title VII claim based on prior circuit precedents. The vote was 8-3. Incidentally, 5 of the judges in the 8-member majority were appointees of Republican presidents. The employer in that case quickly announced that it would not seek Supreme Court review, but this ruling creates a split among the circuit courts, so it is only a matter of time before the Supreme Court receives a petition asking for a definitive interpretation of Title VII on this question.

The 7th Circuit opinion by Chief Judge Diane Wood accepted all of the EEOC’s theories from the Baldwin decision. Judge Wood concluded that “it would require considerable calisthenics to remove the ‘sex’ from ‘sexual orientation.’” “We hold that a person who alleges that she experienced employment discrimination on the basis of her sexual orientation has put forth a case of sex discrimination for Title VII purposes.”

Dissenting Judge Diane Sykes criticized the majority for deploying “a judge-empowering, common-law decision method that leaves a great deal of room for judicial discretion.” Here the battle is joined. For the majority, it is appropriate to trace the development of case law over decades, treating the concept of sex discrimination as evolving. For Judge Posner, concurring, it is legitimate for the court to set aside the pretense of ordinary interpretation and to “update” an old statute to reflect contemporary understandings. And for Judge Sykes, these are both illegitimate because it violates the division of authority between the legislature and the courts to adopt an “interpretation” that would be outside the understanding of the legislators who enacted the statute.

Now the scenario is playing out in other circuits. In recent weeks, the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit and the New York-based 2nd Circuit have issued panel rulings refusing to allow sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII. The panels did not consider the issue afresh and decided to reaffirm the old rulings on the merits, but rather asserted that they were powerless to do so because of the existing circuit precedents. In both of the cases decided in March, Evans v. Georgia Regional Hospital and Christiansen v. Omnicom Group, the panels sent the cases back to the trial court to see whether they could be litigated as sex stereotyping cases instead of sexual orientation cases. But one judge dissented in the 11th Circuit, arguing that an old pre-Price Waterhouse precedent should not longer be treated as binding. The 2nd Circuit panel rejected the trial judge’s conclusion that because the gay plaintiff’s complaint included evidence that his treatment was tainted by homophobia he could not assert a sex stereotyping claim, and two members of the panel wrote a concurring opinion virtually accepting the EEOC’s view of the matter and suggesting that the circuit should reconsider the issue en banc.. In both cases, the panels took the position that sex stereotyping claims could be evaluated without reference to the sexual orientation of the plaintiff. And, in both of these cases, lawyers for the plaintiffs are asking the circuits to convene en banc benches to reconsider the issue, as a preliminary to seeking possible review in the Supreme Court. A different 2nd Circuit panel has also issued a ruling where sex stereotyping of the sort that is actionable in the 2nd Circuit is not part of the case, and counsel in that case is also filing a petition for en banc review.

One or more of these petitions is likely to be granted. While we may see more en banc rulings in favor of allowing sexual orientation discrimination claims, at some point a new circuit split may develop, leading inevitably to the Supreme Court. Or the issue could get to the Supreme Court by an employer seeking further review, since older rulings in other circuits still present the kind of circuit splits that the Supreme Court tries to resolve.

That leads to the highly speculative game of handicapping potential Supreme Court rulings. Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation restores the ideological balance that existed before Justice Scalia’s death. The Court as then constituted decided the historic same-sex marriage cases, Windsor and Obergefell, with Justice Kennedy, a Republican appointee, writing for the Court in both cases, as well as in earlier gay rights victories, Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas. These opinions suggest a degree of empathy for gay litigants that might lead Kennedy to embrace an expansive interpretation of Title VII. He is part of a generation of appellate judges appointed by Ronald Reagan during the 1980s who made up half of the majority in the recent 7th Circuit ruling: Richard Posner, Frank Easterbrook, Joel Flaum, and Kenneth Ripple. Another member of that majority, Ilana Rovner, was appointed by Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush. This line-up underlies optimism that Kennedy might join with the Clinton and Obama appointees on the Supreme Court to produce a five-judge majority to embrace the EEOC’s interpretation. Such optimism may also draw on Kennedy’s decisive rejection of the argument that legal rules are frozen at the time of their adoption and not susceptible to new interpretations in response to evolving social understandings. This was the underlying theme of his opinions in the four major gay rights decisions.

Since the 1970s supporters of gay rights have introduced bills in Congress to amend the federal civil rights laws to provide explicit protection for LGBT people. None of those attempts has succeeded to date. If the judicial battle reaches a happy conclusion, those efforts might be rendered unnecessary, although there is always a danger in statutory law of Congress overruling through amendment, but that seems unlikely unless the Republicans attain a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

On that optimistic note, I conclude with thanks for your attention, and I am happy to answer questions now.

 

Federal Court Rules for “Unique” Family in Fair Housing Act Case

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

A federal district judge in Colorado granted summary judgment under the Federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) on April 5 to a couple in a “unique relationship” who were turned down by a landlord who had two residential properties available for rent that would have met the needs of the couple and their family. Judge Raymond P. Moore found that in turning down two woman (one of whom is transgender) who are married to each other and their two children as tenants, the landlord had discriminated against them because of their sex, as well as their familial status, both of which are forbidden grounds of discrimination under the federal law.

The court also granted judgment to the plaintiffs under Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, which explicitly bans discrimination because of sexual orientation or transgender status as well as familial status.

The landlord, Deepika Avanti, owns three rental properties close to each other in Gold Hill, Colorado. Two are single family houses, and the third is a building subdivided into two separate living spaces, referred to as “townhouses.”  As of April 24, 2015, one of the townhouses was rented to a heterosexual couple, Matthew and Chiara, and the other was being advertised for rent on Craigslist.

The plaintiffs are Rachel Smith, a transgender woman, and Tonya Smith. They had been married for five years and were living with their two children in rental housing that they had to vacate because the building was being sold and withdrawn from the rental market.  They responded to the Craigslist advertisement by emailing Avanti.  “In the email, among other things, Tonya discussed her family, including mentioning that Rachel is transgender,” wrote Judge Moore.  Avanti responded to the email, mentioning that both the townhouse and one of the single family houses, which had three bedrooms, were available for rent. She also asked Tonya to send photos of her family.  Replying by email, Tonya agreed to meet Avanti that evening and attached a photo of the Smith family.

Tonya and Rachel and their children met with Avanti that evening and got to view the townhouse and the single-family house that were available for rent. They also got to meet Matthew and Chiara, the tenants of the other townhouse.  After she returned to her home, Avanti emailed Tonya Smith twice that night.  In the first email, she told Tonya that they were “not welcome to rent the Townhouse because of Matt and Chiara’s concerns regarding their children and ‘noise.’”  In the second email, Avanti said she had talked to her husband and “they have ‘kept a low profile’ and ‘want to continue it’ that way,” so they would not rent either residence to the Smiths.

The next morning, Tonya emailed Avanti, asking what she meant by “low profile.” Avanti replied “that the Smith’s ‘unique relationship and ‘uniqueness’ would become the town focus and would jeopardize [Avanti’s] low profile in the community.”

It took the Smiths months to find a suitable place to rent. Because they had to vacate their existing residence, they moved in with Rachel’s mother for a week and had to shed possessions to fit into a small space.  The new apartment they found did not meet their needs as well as Avanti’s property would have done, due to the location.  Their new apartment placed them in a less desirable school district for the children and required a longer daily commute to her job for Rachel, although she subsequently switched to a job closer to their new apartment.

They sued in federal court, asserting claims under the Fair Housing Act and the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act. The basis for the federal court having jurisdiction to hear the case was the federal statutory claim, which was divided into a sex discrimination claim and a familial status claim.

The more significant part of the ruling for purposes of LGBT law is the federal sex discrimination claim. Federal discrimination statutes do not at present expressly forbid sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, but courts are increasingly willing to apply bans on sex discrimination to claims brought by GLBT plaintiffs.  Although the Department of Housing during the Obama Administration took the position that the FHA should be construed to apply to sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, the Trump Administration has not announced a position on this.  Judge Moore’s opinion thus may be breaking new ground by granting summary judgment in favor of the Smiths on their sex discrimination claim.

Because Colorado is within the 10th Circuit, Judge Moore had to follow 10th Circuit precedent in determining whether the Smiths could sue for sex discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.  The Smiths had argued that discrimination based on “sex stereotypes” is “discrimination based on sex” under the FHA.  Moore pointed out that the 10th Circuit has followed court rulings under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act when interpreting the FHA discrimination ban, and that the 10th Circuit has an employment discrimination ruling on a claim by a transgender plaintiff, Etsitty v. Utah Transit Authority, 502 F.3d 1215 (2007).  In that case, the court ruled that “discrimination against a transsexual based on the person’s status as a transsexual is not discrimination because of sex under Title VII,” and that “Title VII protections” do not extend to “discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation.”  However, the Etsitty opinion did recognize the possibility that a gay or transgender plaintiff might claim sex discrimination because of gender stereotyping, relying on the Supreme Court’s 1989 Title VII ruling, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, where the court held that discriminating against a woman for her failure to conform to the employer’s stereotyped views of how women should act and present themselves in a business setting could violate the statute.

Judge Moore noted that in the Etsitty opinion the 10th Circuit had “cited with approval” to Smith v. City of Salem, 378 F.3d 566 (6th Circuit 2004), a decision upholding a Title VII claim by a transgender woman who was being pressured to quit by the City’s Fire Department after confiding in a supervisor that she was transitioning.  The court held that the fact that the plaintiff is a “transsexual” was “not fatal to a sex discrimination claim where the victim has suffered discrimination because of his or her gender non-conformity.”  In a 2014 decision, McBride v. Peak Wellness Center, 688 F.3d 698, the 10th Circuit has, according to Judge Moore, “implicitly recognized that claims based on failure to conform to stereotypical gender norms may be viable.”

This was enough for Moore. “In this case,” he wrote, “the Smiths contend that discrimination against women (like them) for failure to conform to stereotype norms concerning to or with whom a woman should be attracted, should marry, and/or should have children is discrimination on the basis of sex under the FHA.  The Court agrees,” he continued, finding that “such stereotypical norms are no different from other stereotypes associated with women, such as the way she should dress or act (e.g., that a woman should not be overly aggressive, or should not act macho), and are products of sex stereotyping.”

Moore also stated agreement with the Smiths’ argument that “discrimination against a transgender (here, Rachel) because of her gender-nonconformity is sex discrimination. In other words,” he explained, “that discrimination based on applying gender stereotypes to someone who was assigned a certain sex (here, male) at birth, constitutes discrimination because of sex.”  So long as the argument was phrased in terms of stereotyping, Moore believed that he could rule on the claim under the FHA.  However, he cautioned, “To the extent the Smiths argue something more – that the FHA has been violated based on sex stereotyping as they have been discriminated against solely because of Rachel’s status as transgender, and that the Smiths were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or identity – the Court declines to do so.”  Thus, the court did not hold, as such, that discrimination because sexual orientation or gender violate the FHA’s ban on sex discrimination, but embraced such a broad view of sex stereotyping that the opinion appears to have much the same effect.

As to the motion for summary judgment, Moore concluded that the “undisputed material facts” show that Avanti violated the FHA, as her reference to the Smiths’ “unique relationship” and their family’s “uniqueness” showed reliance on stereotypes “of to or with whom a woman (or a man) should be attracted, should marry, or should have a family.”

As to the “familial status” discrimination claim, there is clear precedent that it violates the FHA for a landlord to have an “adults only” policy or to discriminate against prospective tenants because they have children, so that was a clear winner. Judge Moore also found it relatively simple to rule in the Smiths’ favor on their state law claims, since Colorado explicitly forbids housing discrimination because of sexual orientation (which is defined to include “transgender status”) as well as familial status.  The next stage of the lawsuit will be to determine the damages or relief that the court might order.

The Smiths are represented by Karen Lee Loewy and Omar Francisco Gonzalez-Pagan, from Lambda Legal’s New York office, and cooperating attorneys from Holland & Hart LLP’s Denver office: Matthew Paul Castelli and Benjamin Nichols Simler.

Landmark Federal Appeals Ruling Holds Sexual Orientation Discrimination Violates Title VII

Posted on: April 5th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

The full bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, based in Chicago, substantially advanced the cause of gay rights on April 4, releasing an unprecedented decision in Kimberly Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 2017 WL 1230393, holding that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies generally to all employers with fifteen or more employees as well as many federal, state and local government operations, prohibits discriminating against a person because of their sexual orientation.  The text of the statute does not mention sexual orientation, so the interpretive question for the court was whether discriminating against somebody because they are lesbian, gay or bisexual can be considered a form of sex discrimination.

What was particularly amazing about the affirmative decision, the first to rule this way by a federal appeals court, was that the 7th Circuit is composed overwhelmingly of Republican appointees, many of whom were appointed as long ago as the Reagan Administration.  Although the lead opinion for the Circuit was written by Chief Judge Diane Pamela Wood, who was appointed by Bill Clinton, the 8-member majority of the 11-judge bench included more Republicans than Democrats.  Many of the judges in the majority could be generally characterized as judicial conservatives.

Wood’s opinion was joined by Frank Easterbrook (Reagan appointee), Ilana Rovner (George H. W. Bush appointee), Ann Claire Williams (Clinton appointee), and David F. Hamilton (the only Obama appointee on the Circuit). Richard Posner (Reagan appointee) wrote a concurring opinion.  Joel Martin Flaum (Reagan appointee) wrote a concurring opinion which was joined by Kenneth Francis Ripple (Reagan appointee).  The dissent by Diane S. Sykes (George W. Bush appointee) was joined by Michael Stephen Kanne (Reagan appointee) and William Joseph Bauer (Ford appointee).  Ripple and Bauer are senior judges who were sitting on the en banc hearing because they were part of the three-judge panel (with Judge Rovner) that ruled on the case last year.  The Circuit has 11 authorized positions, but there are two vacancies among the active judges, part of the Republican Senate’s legacy of refusing to confirm most of President Obama’s judicial appointees during his second term.

The Circuit’s decision to grant en banc review clearly signaled a desire to reconsider the issue, which Judge Rovner had called for doing in her panel opinion. Rovner then made a persuasive case that changes in the law since the 7th Circuit had previously ruled negatively on the question called out for reconsideration.  Those who attended the oral argument on November 30 or listened to the recording on the court’s website generally agreed that the circuit was likely to overrule its old precedents, the only mystery being who would write the opinion, what theories they would use, and who would dissent.

The lawsuit was filed by Kimberly Hively, a lesbian who was working as an adjunct professor at the college, which is located in South Bend, Indiana. Despite years of successful teaching, her attempts to secure a full-time tenure-track position were continually frustrated and finally her contract was not renewed under circumstances that led her to believe it was because of her sexual orientation.  Since Indiana’s state law does not forbid sexual orientation discrimination, and South Bend’s ordinance (which does forbid sexual orientation discrimination) would not apply to the state college, she filed suit in federal court under Title VII.  She represented herself at that stage.  The trial judge, Rudy Lozano, granted the college’s motion to dismiss the case on the ground that 7th Circuit precedents exclude sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.

Hively obtained representation from Lambda Legal on appeal. The three-judge panel rejected her appeal, while two of the judges urged that the precedents be reconsidered.

Judge Wood found that several key Supreme Court decisions have broadened the meaning of “because of sex” in Title VII, to the extent that she could write that “in the years since 1964, Title VII has been understood to cover far more than the simple decision of an employer not to hire a woman for Job A, or a man for Job B.” The broadening includes launching a complex law of sexual harassment, including same-sex sexual harassment, and discrimination against a person who fails to conform to “a certain set of gender stereotypes.”

As have many of the other judges who have written on this issue, Wood quoted from Justice Antonin Scalia’s opinion for the unanimous court in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998), the same-sex harassment case, in which, after noting that “male-on-male sexual harassment in the workplace was assuredly not the principal evil Congress was concerned with when it enacted Title VII,” this did not mean that the statute could not be interpreted to apply to such a situation. “But statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil to cover reasonably comparable evils,” Scalia wrote, “and it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”

Woods found convincing Hively’s contention, argued to the court by Lambda Legal’s Greg Nevins, that two alternative theories would support her claim. The first follows a “comparative method in which we attempt to isolate the significance of the plaintiff’s sex to the employer’s decision: has she described a situation in which, holding all other things constant and changing only her sex, she would have been treated the same way?”  The second rests on an intimate association claim, relying on the Supreme Court’s 1967 ruling striking down state laws barring interracial marriages, Loving v. Virginia.  The Supreme Court held that a ban on interracial marriage was a form of race discrimination, because the state was taking race in account in deciding whom somebody could marry.  Similarly here, an employer is taking sex into account when discriminating against somebody because they associate intimately with members of the same sex.  After briefly describing these two theories, Wood wrote, “Although the analysis differs somewhat, both avenues end up in the same place: sex discrimination.”

Woods noted at least two rulings by other circuits under Title VII that had adapted Loving’s interracial marriage analysis to an employment setting, finding race discrimination where an employer discriminated against persons who were in interracial relationships, Parr v. Woodmen of the World Life Insurance Co., 791 F.2 888 (11th Cir. 1986), and Holcomb v. Iona College, 521 F.3d 130 (2nd Cir. 2008).  These citations were a bit ironic, since the 11th and 2nd Circuits have in recent weeks rejected sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, in which the plaintiffs advanced the same analogy to support their Title VII claims.  These recent opinions were by three-judge panels that held themselves to be bound by prior circuit rulings.  Lambda Legal has already filed a petition for en banc review in the 11th Circuit case, and counsel for plaintiff in the 2nd Circuit case is thinking about doing the same.

Ultimately, Wood acknowledged, “It would require considerable calisthenics to remove the ‘sex’ from ‘sexual orientation.’ The effort to do so has led to confusing and contradictory results, as our panel opinion illustrated so well.  The EEOC concluded, in its Baldwin decision, that such an effort cannot be reconciled with the straightforward language of Title VII.  Many district courts have come to the same conclusion.  Many other courts have found that gender identity claims are cognizable under Title VII.”

Woods recited the now well-worn argument about how it is a basic inconsistency in the law that a person can enter into a same-sex marriage on Saturday and then be fired without legal recourse for having done so when they show up at the workplace on Monday. That is still the state of the law in a majority of the states.

Wood acknowledged that this decision does not end the case. Because Hively’s original complaint was dismissed by the district court without a trial, she has not yet been put to the test of proving that her sexual orientation was a motivating factor in the college’s decision not to hire her or renew her adjunct contract.  And, what passed unspoken, the college might decide to petition the Supreme Court to review this ruling, although the immediate reaction of a college spokesperson was that the school – which has its own sexual orientation non-discrimination policy – denies that it discriminated against Hively, and is ready to take its chances at trial.

Judge Posner submitted a rather odd concurring opinion, perhaps reflecting the oddity of some of his comments during oral argument, including the stunning question posed to the college’s lawyer: “Why are there lesbians?” Posner, appointed by Reagan as an economic conservative and social libertarian, has evolved into a forceful advocate for LGBT rights, having satisfied himself that genetics and biology play a large part in determining sexual identity and that it is basically unfair to discriminate against LGBT people without justification.  He wrote the Circuit’s decision striking down bans on same-sex marriage in Indiana and Wisconsin in 2014.

In this opinion, he takes on the contention that it is improper for the court to purport to “interpret” the language adopted by Congress in 1964 to cover sexual orientation discrimination. After reviewing various models of statutory interpretation, he insisted that “interpretation can mean giving a fresh meaning to a statement (which can be a statement found in a constitutional or statutory text) – a meaning that infuses the statement with vitality and significance today.”  He used as his prime example judicial interpretation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, adopted “long before there was a sophisticated understanding of the economics of monopoly and competition.”  As a result of changing times and new knowledge, he observed, “for more than thirty years the Act has been interpreted in conformity to the modern, not the nineteenth-century, understanding of the relevant economics.” Basically, the courts have “updated” the Act in order to keep it relevant to the present.

He argued that the same approach should be brought to interpreting Title VII, adopted more than half a century ago. This old law “invites an interpretation that will update it to the present, a present that differs markedly from the era in which the Act was enacted.”  And, after reviewing the revolution in understanding of human sexuality and public opinion about it, he concluded it was time to update Title VII to cover sexual orientation claims, even though “it is well-nigh certain that homosexuality, male or female, did not figure in the minds of the legislators who enacted Title VII.”  Although some of the history he then recites might arouse some quibbles, he was able to summon some pointed examples of Justice Scalia employing this method in his interpretation of the Constitution regarding, for example, flag-burning and an individual right to bear arms.

“Nothing has changed more in the decades since the enactment of the statute than attitudes toward sex,” wrote Posner, going on to recite the litigation history of the struggle for marriage equality that culminated in 2015 with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.

Although it might sound odd at times as a judicial opinion, Posner’s concurrence is eminently readable and packed full of interesting information, including his list of “homosexual men and women (and also bisexuals, defined as having both homosexual and heterosexual orientations)” who have made “many outstanding intellectual and cultural contributions to society (think for example of Tchaikovsky, Oscar Wilde, Jane Addams, Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, Marlene Dietrich, Bayard Rustin, Alan Turing, Alec Guinness, Leonard Bernstein, Van Cliburn, and James Baldwin – a very partial list).”

This brought to the writer’s mind a famous paragraph in Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion rejecting a challenge to the traditional anti-trust exemption for professional baseball, in which Blackmun included his own list of the greatest professional baseball players in history (compiled through a survey of the Supreme Court’s members and their young legal clerks).

Instead of pursuing Judge Wood’s line of reasoning, Posner was ready to declare that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination without such detailed analysis. “The most tenable and straightforward ground for deciding in favor of Hively is that while in 1964 sex discrimination meant discrimination against men or women as such and not against subsets of men or women such as effeminate men or mannish women, the concept of sex discrimination has since broadened in light of the recognition, which barely existed in 1964, that there are significant numbers of both men and women who have a sexual orientation that sets them apart from the heterosexual members of their genetic sex (male or female), and that while they constitute a minority their sexual orientation is not evil and does not threaten society.  Title VII in terms forbids only sex discrimination, but we now understand discrimination against homosexual men and women to be a form of sex discrimination; and to paraphrase [Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.], ‘We must consider what this country has become in deciding what that [statute] has reserved.’”

In his concurring opinion Judge Flaum took a narrower approach, noting that Title VII was amended in 1991 to provide that “an unlawful employment practice is established when the complaining party demonstrates that … sex … was a motivating factor for any employment practice, even though other factors also motivated the practice.” In other words, discrimination does not have to be “solely” because of sex to violate Title VII.  It is enough if the individual’s sex was part of the reason for the discrimination.  In light of this, Flaum (and Ripple, who joined his opinion) would look to the analogy with discrimination against employees in interracial relationships.  In addition, he noted, “One cannot consider a person’s homosexuality without also accounting for their sex: doing so would render ‘same’ and ‘own’ meaningless” in dictionary definitions that define homosexuality in terms of  whether somebody is attracted to persons of “the same” or “their own” sex.  Clearly, “sex” is involved when people are discriminated against because they are gay.

Judge Sykes’s dissent channeled scores of cases going back to the early years of Title VII and argued against the method of statutory interpretation used by the various opinions making up the majority. “The question before the en banc court is one of statutory interpretation,” she wrote.  “The majority deploys a judge-empowering, common-law decision method that leaves a great deal of room for judicial discretion.  So does Judge Posner in his concurrence.  Neither is faithful to the statutory text, read fairly, as a reasonable person would have understood it when it was adopted.  The result is a statutory amendment courtesy of unelected judges.  Judge Posner admits this; he embraces and argues for this conception of judicial power.  The majority does not, preferring instead to smuggle in the statutory amendment under cover of an aggressive reading of loosely related Supreme Court precedents.  Either way, the result is the same: the circumvention of the legislative process by which the people govern themselves.”

Although Sykes conceded that sexual orientation discrimination is wrong, she was not ready to concede that one could find it illegal by interpretation of a 1964 statute prohibiting sex discrimination at a time when the legislature could not possibly have been intending to ban discrimination against LGBT people. As Posner pointed out, that issue wasn’t on the radar in 1964.  Thus, to Sykes, Bauer and Kanne, it was not legitimate for a court to read this into the statute under the guise of “interpretation.”

Speculating about the ultimate fate of this decision could go endlessly on. There are fierce debates within the judiciary about acceptable methods of interpreting statutes, and various theories about how to deal with aging statutes that are out of sync with modern understandings.

Posner’s argument for judicial updating allows for the possibility that if Congress disagrees with what a court has done, it can step in and amend the statute, as Congress has frequently amended Title VII to overrule Supreme Court interpretations with which it disagreed. (For example, Congress overruled the Supreme Court’s decision that discrimination against pregnant women was not sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.)  Posner’s approach will be familiar to those who have read the influential 1982 book by then-Professor (now 2nd Circuit Judge) Guido Calabresi, “A Common Law for the Age of Statutes,” suggesting that courts deal with the problem of ancient statutes and legislative inertia by “updating” statutes through interpretation to deal with contemporary problems, leaving it to the legislature to overrule the courts if they disagree.  This method is more generally accepted in other common law countries (British Commonwealth nations), such as Australia, South Africa, India and Canada, than in the United States, but it clearly appeals to Posner as eminently practical.

So far the Republican majorities in Congress have not been motivated to address this issue through amendments to Title VII, or to advance the Equality Act, introduced during Obama’s second term, which would amend all federal sex discrimination laws to address sexual orientation and gender identity explicitly. Perhaps they will be provoked to act, however, if the question gets up to the Supreme Court and the 7th Circuit’s view prevails.

With the possibility of appeals now arising from three different circuits with different views of the issue, Supreme Court consideration of this question is highly likely. Public opinion polls generally show overwhelming support for prohibiting sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination in the workplace, which might serve as a brake on conservative legislators who would otherwise respond adversely to a Supreme Court ruling approving the 7th Circuit’s holding.

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.