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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were living with their two children in rental housing that they had to vacate because the building was being sold and withdrawn from the rental market.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.

 

 

Another Federal Judge Lets Gay Plaintiff Pursue Discrimination Claim under Title VII

Posted on: November 22nd, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

One of the nation’s most senior federal trial judges, Warren W. Eginton (age 92) of Connecticut, rejected an employer’s motion to dismiss a Title VII sex discrimination claim brought by an openly gay employee in a November 17 ruling.  Boutillier v. Hartford Public Schools, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 159093, 2016 WL 6818348 (D. Conn.).  Eginton, who was appointed by Jimmy Carter in 1979 and has been a senior judge (semi-retired) since 1992, accepted the argument that Title VII can be interpreted to ban sexual orientation discrimination, despite prior contrary rulings by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, to which his decision can be appealed.

 

Eginton’s ruling came less than two weeks after a federal district judge in Pennsylvania, Cathy Bissoon, appointed by Barack Obama, issued a similar ruling in EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, bucking contrary appellate precedent in the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.  Could this be the beginning of a trend?

 

Lisa Boutillier, a lesbian who formerly taught in the Hartford Public School system, claimed that she had suffered discrimination and retaliation because of her sexual orientation and physical disability in violation of the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Because Connecticut law explicitly bans sexual orientation and disability discrimination, she could have brought her case in state court and, by confining her claims to state law, she could have avoided ending up in federal court where adverse circuit precedent might have doomed her Title VII claim.  Instead, however, her attorney, Margaret M. Doherty, included the federal claims and filed in the U.S. District Court, prompting the school district to file a motion arguing that Title VII does not cover this case.  The case could remain in Judge Eginton’s court only if he found that Boutillier could assert a potentially valid claim under either or both of the Americans with Disabilities Act or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Eginton concluded that Boutillier failed to allege facts sufficient to qualify as a person with a disability under the ADA, so her ability to maintain the action in federal court turned entirely on whether she could allege a sex discrimination claim under Title VII.       There is little doubt from her factual allegations that if Title VII covers this case, Boutillier will have stated a potentially valid claim and avoid summary judgment against her.

 

Judge Eginton devoted most of his opinion to the Title VII question.  He sharply disputed the Second Circuit’s prior rulings refusing to allow sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.  “Early interpretations of Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions reached illogical conclusions based on a supposed traditional concept of discrimination, which, for example, determined that discrimination based on pregnancy was not discrimination based on sex,” he began his analysis, noting that Congress had overruled that mistaken early Supreme Court decision by amending Title VII.  He said that the pregnancy case “and other similar decisions that imposed incongruous traditional norms were misguided in their interpretations regardless of whether Congress had been able to overrule them.”  He charged that these early cases were mistaken because “they failed to take the ordinary meaning of the Act’s text to its logical conclusions . . . .  The converse of the majority’s decision,” wrote Eginton, “and equally absurd, would be to hold that an exclusion in coverage for prostate cancer does not discriminate against men based on sex.  Such conclusion represent a fundamental failure of ordinary interpretation.”

 

He found a similar error of reasoning in the Second Circuit’s approach to sexual orientation claims.  He noted that when Congress overruled the pregnancy case, the House Report stated: “It is the Committee’s view that the dissenting Justices correctly interpreted the Act.”  The 2nd Circuit has premised its view on lack of legislative history showing that Congress intended to protect gay people from discrimination when it included “sex” in Title VII in 1964.  “Acknowledging that the legislative history on whether sexual orientation should be included in the category of sex under Title VII is slight,” wrote Eginton, “it is difficult to glean the absence of prior intention merely from subsequent efforts by Congress to reinforce statutory civil rights protections” by adding “sexual orientation” to federal law, as the 2nd Circuit has repeatedly done.  He pointed out that the Supreme Court has cautioned against relying on legislative inaction as an indication of legislative intent.

 

More importantly, however, he wrote, “straightforward statutory interpretation and logic dictate that sexual orientation cannot be extricated from sex: the two are necessarily intertwined in a manner that, when viewed under the Title VII paradigm set forth by the Supreme Court, place sexual orientation discrimination within the penumbra of sex discrimination.”

 

The judge pointed out the inconsistency between the 2nd Circuit’s approach to sexual orientation and its cases about race discrimination.  The 2nd Circuit has accepted the argument that it is race discrimination when an employer discriminates against an employee for engaging in an interracial relationship.  “The logic is inescapable,” wrote Eginton: “If interracial association discrimination is held to be ‘because of the employee’s own race,’ so ought sexual orientation discrimination be held to be because of the employee’s own sex.”  The 2nd Circuit’s cases are “not legitimately distinguishable,” he argued.  “If Title VII protects individuals who are discriminated against on the basis of race because of interracial association (it does), it should similarly protect individuals who are discriminated against on the basis of sex because of sexual orientation – which could otherwise be named ‘intrasexual association.’”

 

He pointed out that the Supreme Court’s key decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins “bolsters” his conclusion, in holding that “sex stereotyping could constitute discrimination because of sex. . .  Indeed, stereotypes concerning sexual orientation are probably the most prominent of all sex related stereotypes, which can lead to discrimination based on what the Second Circuit refers to interchangeably as gender non-conformity.”  The 2nd Circuit has refused to extend this reasoning to sexual orientation cases, however, using an analysis that Eginton maintains is “inherently unmanageable, as homosexuality is the ultimate gender non-conformity, the prototypical sex stereotyping animus.”

 

He quoted extensively from a recent 7th Circuit decision, Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, where a 3-judge panel of that court dismissed a sexual orientation discrimination claim because of circuit precedent, but two members of the panel submitted an opinion suggesting that the circuit should be reconsidering its position.  Since then, the 7th Circuit has voted to grant “en banc” review in the case, with reargument scheduled for November 30.

 

Eginton pointed out the paradox stemming from the 2nd Circuit’s position.  “Essentially, employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees for exhibiting stereotypical gay behavior, yet, at the same time, employers are free to discriminate against employees for actually being gay.”  Thus, Eginton, concluded, he would follow the lead of the 2nd Circuit’s interracial discrimination case instead of its past dismissal of sexual orientation discrimination claims “by interpreting the ordinary meaning of sex under Title VII to include sexual orientation, thereby obviating the need to parse sexuality from gender norms.”  Eginton pointed out that the EEOC adopted this view in 2015, the 7th Circuit agreed to a full rehearing in Hively, and a 2nd Circuit panel will soon rule on appeals from trial court dismissals of sexual orientation claims in several cases from New York.  While the 2nd Circuit’s expected ruling on those appeals “may ultimately decide the fate of plaintiff’s Title VII claims,” he wrote, “in the meantime, summary judgment will be denied.  Plaintiff has adequately established a right to protection under Title VII.”

New Court Ruling Shows What May Be Lost Due to Trump/Pence Election

Posted on: November 17th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

A November 4 ruling in a sexual orientation discrimination case that was brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) shows that progress on LGBTS rights may be lost as a result of the election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence. The ruling in EEOC v. Scott Medical Health Center, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 153744, 2016 WL 6569233 (W.D. Pa.), was issued by U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon, who was nominated to the federal district court in Pittsburgh by President Obama in 2010 and confirmed by the Senate in October 2011 by a vote of 82-3.  The judge, a Brooklyn native, was reportedly the first woman of Indian descent to sit as a federal judge when she took her previous position as a U.S. Magistrate Judge in 2008. In this ruling, the judge held that Title VII may be used to protect gay people from sexual orientation discrimination.

In this case, Dale Baxley was hired in mid-July 2013 by Scott Medical Health Center in a telemarketing position. He claims that he was subjected by his manager, Robert McClendon, to “a continuing course of unwelcome and offensive harassment because of his sex” that created a hostile work environment.  According to the Complaint filed in the district court, McClendon “routinely made unwelcome and offensive comments about Baxley, including but not limited to regularly calling him ‘fag,’ ‘faggot,’ ‘fucking faggot,’ and ‘queer,’ and making statements such as ‘fucking queer can’t do your job.’”  The Complaint also alleges that after McClendon found out that Baxley is gay and had a same-sex partner, he “made highly offensive statements to Baxley about Baxley’s relationship with the partner such as saying, ‘I always wondered how you fags have sex,’ ‘I don’t understand how you fucking fags have sex,’ and ‘Who’s the butch and who is the bitch?’”  Baxley was gone from the job after about a month of McClendon’s verbal abuse, a victim – he claims – of “constructive discharge.”  That is, his working conditions were so miserable that he was compelled to quit.

Ironically, the EEOC’s lawsuit on behalf of Baxley resulted not from a charge he filed but from the agency’s investigation of discrimination charges filed with the Pittsburgh office by five of Baxley’s former female co-workers. These women alleged that they were subjected to sexual harassment by McClendon, including “unwanted touching so frequently and severely that it created a hostile and offensive work environment and resulted in adverse employment decisions being taken against them.”  While investigating these charges, the agency learned about McClendon’s treatment of Baxley and Baxley’s claim that he had been constructively discharged.

At the end of the investigation, the EEOC issued a “Letter of Determination” to Scott Medical Health Center stating that the investigation “also revealed that McClendon harassed a male employee because of sex, specifically and repeatedly referring to the male employee as a ‘faggot,’ and repeatedly asking about the employee’s sexual experiences and preferences. The investigation revealed that McClendon targeted this male employee because he did not conform to what McClendon believed was acceptable or expected behavior for a male because of his association with members of the same sex rather than the opposite sex.”  The letter concluded that McClendon’s conduct created a hostile environment resulting in the constructive discharge of Baxley.  The EEOC attempted unsuccessfully to achieve a conciliation agreement with the employer, then filed this lawsuit.

This was the first lawsuit that the EEOC filed on behalf of a gay former employee alleging that his discharge was “because of sex” in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In July 2015, the agency had reversed its position of half a century when it ruled in Baldwin v. Foxx that the U.S. Transportation Department may have violated Title VII when it denied a promotion to a gay air traffic controller.  After accepting the view that sexual orientation claims can be asserted under Title VII, the agency was on the lookout for appropriate private sector cases to bring, in order to vindicate a public policy against such discrimination as well as seeking a remedy for the employee involved.  The agency was seeking to establish court precedents that would lock its interpretation into the case law.  Prior to this case filing, all of the Title VII sexual orientation claims presented to federal courts had been lawsuits filed by individual discrimination victims, not by the federal agency.

The Health Center asked the court to dismiss the EEOC’s complaint, arguing that Title VII does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, citing two precedents from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, Bibby v. Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co., 260 F.3d 257 (3rd Cir. 2001), and Prowel v. Wise Business Forms, Inc., 579 F.3d 285 (3rd Cir. 2009), in support of that argument.  But Judge Bissoon found that in those prior decisions, the court of appeals had not been presented with all the arguments that the EEOC has developed in support of its 2015 change of position on this issue, and more recent events have undermined the earlier rulings, so she concluded that those rulings – by the court with direct appellate authority over district court decisions from Pennsylvania – did not compel dismissal of this complaint.

The EEOC advanced three lines of argument in support of its position. First, that Baxley was “targeted because he is a male, for had he been female instead of a male, he would not have been subjected to discrimination for his intimate relationships with men.”  Second, the he was “targeted and harassed because of his intimate association with someone of the same sex, which necessarily takes Baxley’s sex into account.”  And, third, that he was “targeted because he did not conform to his harasser’s concepts of what a man should be or do.”  This last argument is a version of the “sex stereotype” theory that the Supreme Court approved in 1989 in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.

Judge Bissoon said that the EEOC’s three arguments were actually just one argument stated three different ways, “with the singular question being whether, but for Mr. Baxley’s sex, would he have been subjected to this discrimination or harassment. The answer, based on these allegations, is no.”

For purposes of ruling on a motion to dismiss a claim, the court assumes that the plaintiff’s factual allegations are true, and asks whether, based on those facts, the plaintiff has a plausible legal claim. Thus, Judge Bissoon was ruling, if the EEOC can prove these factual allegations, it will win the case.

Judge Bissoon held, straightforwardly, that “Title VII’s ‘because of sex’ provision forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.” This statement directly contradicts the two prior 3rd Circuit rulings, but Judge Bissoon found that it was consistent with how the law had developed under Title VII, dating back as early as 1983 when the Supreme Court began “broadening” its interpretation of sex discrimination in a series of cases culminating with Price Waterhouse in 1989.  She also noted that at least one federal appeals court, the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit, has already used the sex stereotyping theory to extend protection to a transgender plaintiff.

As the EEOC has done, Judge Bissoon quoted Justice Scalia’s statement in the Supreme Court’s 1998 same-sex harassment case, Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, that “statutory prohibitions often go beyond the principal evil [that Congress intended to address] 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.” Thus, the lack of any evidence that Congress intended to prohibit sexual orientation discrimination in 1964 does not require rejecting a sexual orientation discrimination claim in 2016.

Referring back to Price Waterhouse, the judge wrote, “There is no more obvious form of sex stereotyping than making a determination that a person should conform to heterosexuality. As the EEOC states, ‘discrimination against a person because of the sex of that person’s romantic partner necessarily involves stereotypes about “proper” roles in sexual relationships – that men are and should only be sexually attracted to women, not men.’  This discriminatory evil is more than reasonably comparable to the evil identified by the Supreme Court in Price Waterhouse.  Indeed, the Court finds discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is, at its very core, sex stereotyping plain and simple; there is no line separating the two.”

And the judge found that this argument was not presenting in its fully developed form to the 3rd Circuit in its earlier cases, so it had not been specifically rejected by that court.  In its earlier cases, furthermore, the 3rd Circuit panels had relied on the failure of Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act as evidence that Congress did not intend to protect gay people from discrimination.  “However,” she wrote, “subsequent Third Circuit decisions have questioned the value of reliance on Congress inaction.”  Furthermore, she pointed out, many of the cases relied upon in those earlier 3rd Circuit decisions had in turned relied upon circuit court cases that pre-dated Price Waterhouse, and so necessarily had not ruled on the sex stereotype theory.

“The Supreme Court’s recent opinion legalizing gay marriage demonstrates a growing recognition of the illegality of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” wrote the judge. “That someone can be subjected to a barrage of insults, humiliation, hostility and/or changes to the terms and conditions of their employment, based upon nothing more than the aggressor’s view of what it means to be a man or a woman, is exactly the evil Title VII was designed to eradicate.” Thus, the court denied the employer’s motion to dismiss the Title VII complaint.

If the employer appeals this case to the 3rd Circuit, it will be reaching an appellate bench with seven Democratic appointees (by Presidents Clinton and Obama) and five Republican appointees (by Presidents Bush I and II).  There are two vacancies.  There are nine active senior judges of the circuit, mostly appointed by Republican presidents, who might sit on particular three-judge panels but would not participate in “en banc” reviews by the full circuit bench.   By random draw, any particular three-judge panel might by more or less receptive to Judge Bissoon’s reasoning, although one can’t conclusively presume that every Democratic appointee will agree and every Republican appointee will disagree.  But the point to bear in mind is that Obama, through his appointments, switched the 3rd Circuit from a more conservative to a more progressive bench, and Trump can rebalance the circuit by filling the two vacancies and the next one that comes along if a Clinton or Obama appointee takes senior status.

Similarly, at the EEOC, significant progress in protecting LGBT rights came through administrative rulings and litigation decisions undertaken by President Obama’s appointees. The agency has become a vocal proponent of a broad interpretation of Title VII to protect LGBT people from employment discrimination, and its reasoning has been followed by other agencies, such as the Department of Labor and the Department of Education.   It seems unlikely that Trump’s appointees, once attaining full control of the federal agencies and departments, would keep to the same course.  Indeed, it is not a sure thing that Trump will allow Obama’s executive orders banning sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination within the Executive Branch, to stay in place.  The Order requiring federal contractors to have non-discrimination policies is likely on the repeal list.

Luckily, individuals can continue to file discrimination lawsuits under Title VII, so the loss of the agency as a plaintiff in their cases will not shut them out of court. But preserving the gains made so far may be difficult against the tide of new judicial and agency appointments that will be made beginning January 21.  Stalling on confirmations by the Senate has left close to 100 federal judgeships vacant, and there are hundreds of agency appointments to be made as well, which will cumulatively change the direction in which federal anti-discrimination law has been developing during the Obama years.  The appointment of new Supreme Court justices will matter as well, of course, because ultimately the question whether Title VII and other federal sex discrimination laws protect LGBT people will end up before that Court, where a transgender “bathroom” case under Title IX has already been accepted for review.   If these cases are decided after Trump has had two Supreme Court appointments, it is reasonable to speculate that the newly solidified conservative majority will not be inclined to adopt such a broad interpretation of Title VII or other federal sex discrimination laws.  Elections matter.

Gay and Trans Plaintiffs Advance Title VII Discrimination Claims Using Sex Stereotyping Theory

Posted on: October 10th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

Two federal trial courts have allowed Title VII claims by law enforcement officers, one gay and the other transgender, to proceed over employer protests early in October. On October 4, U.S. District Judge Jennifer A. Dorsey granted summary judgment to Bradley Roberts, a transgender man employed as a police officer by the Clark County School District in Nevada, on his claim of gender discrimination in violation of Title VII and the Nevada Equal Rights Law, while referring claims of harassment and retaliation to a magistrate judge for trial.    Roberts v. Clark County School District, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 138329, 2016 WL 5843046 (D. Nevada).  On October 7, Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge John E. Ott of the Northern District of Alabama denied the City of Pleasant Grove’s motion to dismiss a Title VII claim by an openly gay man, Lance Smith, who had been discharged from the city’s Police Department.  Smith v. City of Pleasant Grove, 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139575, 2016 WL 5868510 (N.D. Alabama).  In both cases, the judges referred to the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228, which endorsed the view that employees who suffered adverse consequences because of their failure to comply with the employer’s sex-stereotypical views could sue for sex discrimination under Title VII.

In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency that enforces Title VII, issued an administrative decision finding that the statute forbids gender identity discrimination, and the EEOC issued a similar ruling regarding sexual orientation discrimination in 2015. The EEOC rulings relied upon and extended the sex-stereotyping theory.  The agency’s rulings are not binding on the federal courts, but federal trial judges have begun over the past year to acknowledge them and, in some cases, to follow their reasoning.

The Clark County School District first hired Bradley Roberts as a campus monitor in 1992. At that time Roberts was known by a female name and hoped to become a police officer. Roberts graduated from a law enforcement academy in 1994 and was then hired by the District to be a police officer, a position Roberts held without incident for seventeen years until he began to transition.

In 2011, Roberts began dressing as a man, grooming as a man, and identifying himself as a man. He started using the men’s bathroom at work, leading to complaints from some of the other officers.  His commanding officers confronted him for an explanation, which he gave, explaining that he was transgender and in the process of transitioning.  He said he wanted to be known henceforth as Bradley Roberts and to use the men’s bathrooms.  They told him he could not do so, but that because he now appeared as a man, he should also refrain from using the women’s bathrooms.  There were some gender-neutral bathrooms in the District schools, and he was instructed to use them “to avoid any future complaints.”  Roberts followed up by sending  a letter to his superiors summarizing what he had told them and again expressing his desire to be called Bradley Roberts, for co-workers to use male pronouns in referring to him, and he promised to comply with the men’s grooming code for the District police force.

Roberts’ letter prompted another meeting with his superiors and his union representative. His request to use men’s bathrooms was again denied, and he was told he would not be referred to as a man or allowed to use the men’s bathrooms until he could provide official documentation of a name and sex change.  However, two days later, at yet another such meeting, he was told that the District would allow him to use a man’s name informally, but all “official and formal documents” would continue to use his female name until he got a court-ordered name change and processed it through the Human Resources department.  He would still be required to use only the gender-neutral bathrooms.

 

Roberts then received a proposed memo summarizing these arrangements, including his concern that co-workers and commanding officers be cautioned that asking “below the belt” questions about his anatomy “may constitute sexual harassment.” Roberts thought this memo was only going to be distributed among supervisors and managers, and claims he was “blindsided” when it went by email to everybody in the Department, generating questions and what he considered to be harassing conduct from some co-workers.

In December 2011, a court granted his name change petition, he updated his driver’s license to reflect his name and gender, and he submitted paperwork to Human Resources, which resulted in yet another email going out to the entire department explaining his name change and stating that it would take effect for purposes of his official records. However, he subsequently discovered that he was still listed as “female” on the new insurance card he was issued for 2012.

Roberts then filed a discrimination complaint with the Nevada Equal Rights Commission, alleging gender identity discrimination in violation of state law. (Nevada’s statute specifically includes gender identity.)  He cited the bathroom ban as discriminatory, and described several incidents, including the meetings with supervisors as harassment.  The District claimed that the steps it had taken had resolved any problem and refused to participate in mediation with the NERC, but in the face of a scheduled hearing the District issued a new bathroom policy, allowing Roberts to use the men’s bathrooms.  NERC then closed Roberts’ discrimination case as “moot,” but he filed a second charge, citing the bathroom ban, offensve comments from co-workers, and the department-wide emails that had essentially “outed” him to the Department without his permission.  He also alleged retaliation for filing the earlier charges and improper questions, comments and gestures by co-workers.  Ultimately he received a “right-to-sue” letter from the EEOC and sued the District in federal court.

In response to motions for summary judgment, Judge Dorsey undertook a thorough historical review of the treatment of gender identity under Title VII, emphasizing how the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has appellate jurisdiction over the federal trial courts in Nevada, has embraced a broad understanding of sex discrimination under Title VII and other federal laws, such as the Violence Against Women Act.  She explained how the Price Waterhouse case had generated a growing body of decisions in other circuits allowing gender identity claims under Title VII in reliance on the sex stereotyping theory, and she noted the EEOC’s decisions in 2012 and 2015 extending this to bathroom access for transgender employees.

“I join the weight of authority and hold that discrimination against a person based on transgender status is discrimination ‘because of sex’ under Title VII,” she wrote, continuing that “because it appears that the Ninth Circuit would hold that gender-identity discrimination is actionable under Title VII, I see no reason to depart from the heavy weight of this authority. Nothing in the few contrary decisions cited by the school district persuades me otherwise.  The contrary Seventh and Tenth Circuit decisions provide no cogent analysis of Title VII’s language or the Supreme Court case law,” as they relied heavily on outdated precedents.  Further, she concluded that Roberts was entitled to summary judgment on his sex discrimination claims, because it was clear that he had suffered discrimination on that basis at the hands of the District.

“Direct evidence established the department’s discriminatory intent here,” wrote Judge Dorsey. “It banned Roberts from the women’s bathroom because he no longer behaved like a woman.  This alone shows that the school district discriminated against Roberts based on his gender and sex stereotypes.  And the department also admits that it banned Roberts from the men’s bathroom because he is biologically female.  Although CCSD contends that it discriminated against Roberts based on his genitalia, not his status as a transgender person, this is a distinction without a difference here.  Roberts was clearly treated differently than persons of both his biological sex and the gender he identifies as – in sum, because of his transgender status.”

Dorsey found that the bathroom ban was “an adverse employment action,” that Roberts was treated differently than similarly situated employees, and that the District failed to articulate a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for restricting his bathroom use.

However, she found that factual disputes precluded granting summary judgement on the harassment and retaliation claims, since there was a dispute about whether the conduct experienced by Roberts was sufficiently severe to meet the harassment standard or whether any adverse treatment he experienced was actually a response to his complaining about his treatment. Thus, summary judgment was denied as to those charges, and the judge referred them to a magistrate judge for further proceedings to resolve those factual disputes.

The Smith case involves straightforward sexual orientation discrimination by a local Alabama police department. Lance Smith interviewed with Lt. Jennifer Fredrick for an available position in the Pleasant Grove Police Department (PGPD) in 2014.  She told him he would be offered a position at a specific salary.  At the end of the interview, Smith told Fredrick that he is gay and has a same-sex partner.  Smith says that Fredrick’s demeanor immediately changed and she advised him to “reconsider” his desire to work in the PGPD.  However, after the interview Smith received an email from Fredrick informing him that “his homosexuality would not be an issue,” wrote Judge Ott.  This was evidently untrue, to judge by subsequent events related by Smith in his Title VII complaint.

After Smith completed the required physical exam, he was directed to meet with the Chief of Police, Robert Knight, who told him he would receive a lower salary than he had been promised by Lt. Fredrick. In his complaint, he claims he was paid $5,000 less than other new recruits.  Smith claims that he received only two weeks of field training instead of the three normally provided to new recruits, and then was assigned to a night shift patrol on his own rather than the usual assignment for new officers to patrol with a partner.  Smith claims that he was informed by the night shift sergeant that “Lt. Fredrick had instructed the sergeant to write down everything Smith did wrong so Lt. Fredrick could fire him.”  Smith says another officer warned him to be “careful” because a police corporal was a “homophobe.”

After a few months, Lt. Fredrick told Smith he was “not going to work out” and needed to resign, but refused to tell him what he had done wrong. In fact, he claims, she told him he was a good officer and would find another department that would “fit” him better.  Fredrick gave him a previously-prepared resignation letter and told him he would be grounded, suspended, and then fired if he did not resign.  Smith signed the letter and attempted to find police work elsewhere in the county, relying on Fredrick’s statement that she would advise prospective employers and the Jefferson County Personnel Board that he resigned in good standing, but he claims he was unable to find employment because Knight and Fredrick had “falsely reported that he was an unsatisfactory employee.”

Smith filed a sex discrimination charge with the EEOC, which issued him a right to sue letter. He filed his suit on March 1, 2016, claiming he was subjected to “discriminatory terms and conditions of employment because of his sexual orientation, and stereotypes associated with his sex and his gender,” in violation of Title VII.  He also alleged a violation of his rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and asserted a state tort claim that the City, Knight and Fredrick had interfered with his “contractual or business relationship with prospective employers” by giving him a bad employment report.  The defendants moved to dismiss on various grounds, including the claim that Title VII does not apply to his case.

“Traditionally, court in this circuit have held that Title VII does not provide a remedy for discrimination based on sexual orientation,” wrote Judge Ott, citing a long list of cases, and adding a list of cases from other circuits with similar holdings. “The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, however, recently concluded that ‘an allegation of discrimination based on sexual orientation is necessarily an allegation of sex discrimination under Title VII,’” he wrote, and “at least one court in this circuit, noting that the question is an ‘open one,’ has agreed with the EEOC and has found that ‘claims of sexual orientation-based discrimination are cognizable under Title VII.’”

More importantly, wrote Ott, “Smith has also alleged discrimination based on his failure to conform to sex and gender stereotypes.” While Ott rejected Smith’s argument that discrimination based on his association with his male partner is prohibited sex discrimination, he found that the 11th Circuit, which has appellate authority over federal courts in Alabama, had accepted a broad view of sex discrimination in the Brumby case in 2011, involving a transgender state employee asserting an equal protection claim.  In that case, the 11th Circuit relied on sex-stereotype theory to conclude that Brumby had a valid equal protection claim, finding that his claim should be analyzed under the same “heightened scrutiny” standard used for sex discrimination claims.

“In his amended complaint,” wrote Ott, “Smith alleges that ‘sexual and gender-stereotyping comments’ were made to him during his employment with the Pleasant Grove Police Department, including the comment that ‘men should be men,’ which led him to conclude that other members of the department did not feel that he was ‘manly’ enough to be a police officer. He also alleges that other officers made jokes about his attire and mannerisms.  These factual allegations are ‘enough to raise a right to relief [under Title VII] above the speculative level,’” Ott continued, citing a Supreme Court ruling on the required factual allegations to ground a civil complaint.  “They are sufficient to allow the court to draw the reasonable inference that the City of Pleasant Grove could be liable for discriminating against Smith because of his failure to conform to sex and gender stereotypes.”  Thus, Ott refused to dismiss the Title VII claim, which will next proceed to discovery.

However, Ott dismissed the Equal Protection claim, asserting that Smith had failed to allege facts that would support an inference that he was denied equal protection of the laws because he failed “to adequately allege the existence of a similarly situated comparator, an essential component of an equal protection claim. To prevail on his equal protection claim, Smith must show ‘a satisfactory comparator who was in fact similarly situation and yet treated differently.’”  Ott found two relevant allegations in Smith’s complaint: that he was paid less than “similarly situated employees” and that he was “singled out because of his association with his male partner while similarly situated employees were not.” But Ott found that Smith had failed to identify particular specific “similarly situated employees” to illustrate these claims.  “He does not identify a single comparator who was allegedly treated more favorably than he was,” concluded Ott.

However, Judge Ott refused to dismiss Smith’s claim against Chief Knight and Lt. Fredrick in their individual capacities for “interference with a contractual or business relationship,” rejecting their argument that any adverse comments they made were privileged due to the city’s relationship with the county personnel board. “In their individual capacities,” wrote Ott, “Chief Knight and Lt. Fredrick did not have a ‘legitimate economic interest in and a legitimate relationship to’ any contract of business relationship Smith might secure through the Jefferson County Personnel Board.”  On the other hand, Ott rejected Smith’s claim that the City could be held liable for maintaining an “official custom or policy” of discrimination, finding insufficient factual allegations to support such a claim.

Bradley Roberts is represented by a team of lawyers led by Jason Maier of Las Vegas, with amicus assistance from Lambda Legal staff lawyers and cooperating attorneys. Lance Smith is represented by Cynthia Wilkinson of Birmingham, Alabama.

Judge Dorsey was appointed by President Barack Obama. Judge Ott was appointed by President Bill Clinton.

Funeral Home Wins Summary Judgment Motion in Transgender Discrimination Case with RFRA Defense

Posted on: August 20th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox ruled on August 18 that a funeral home that discharged a transgender funeral director because of her intention to dress according to the employer’s dress code for women was not liable for sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ruling, granting the employer’s motion for summary judgment, stemmed from the court’s conclusion that the employer prevailed on a religious free exercise defense raised under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), because the plaintiff in the case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that enforces Title VII, had failed to show that requiring the employer to allow the employee to use the approved female outfit was the “least restrictive alternative” to achieve the government’s compelling interest in preventing sex stereotyping discrimination in the workplace.  The case is EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., 2016 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109716, 2016 WL 4396083 (E.D. Mich.).

Importantly, Judge Cox made clear in his opinion that had the employee, Amiee Stephens, sued the funeral home on her own behalf, the funeral home would not have been able to raise the RFRA religious freedom defense, and she would most likely have won her Title VII case. Within the 6th Circuit (the states of Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee), the controlling circuit precedent states that a RFRA defense may only be raised in a case where “the government” is either the plaintiff or the defendant.

There are similar controlling precedents in the 7th and 9th Circuits, according to the opinion in the 6th Circuit case on which Judge Cox relied, General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists v. McGill, 617 F.3d 402 (2010).  In the 2nd Circuit, which includes New York, there is a contrary precedent by a three- judge panel which has been questioned by a different three-judge panel, so the issue is a bit muddled.  The Supreme Court has never made clear whether RFRA is so limited in employment discrimination cases, but in the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell case, in which the Court ruled that business corporations may claim protection from government actions under RFRA, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the Court in dicta (non-precedential language) that an employer would not be able to rely on RFRA to defend against a Title VII race discrimination charge.  He made this statement in response to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s statement in her dissent that the majority’s approach would endanger the enforcement of Title VII and other anti-discrimination laws.  Alito’s statement did not mention any distinction between cases brought by the EEOC and cases brought by individual employees.

Aimee Stephens – then known as Anthony Stephens – was hired by the Harris Funeral Home in October 2007. Stephens was identified as male on the Funeral Home’s employment records.  Stephens worked as a funeral director and embalmer for nearly six years under that name.  On July 31, 2013, Stephens sent a letter to her boss, Thomas Rost (who owns over 90% of the stock in Harris Funeral Homes, Inc.) and to her co-workers, telling them about her female gender identity and her determination to transition.  She wrote, “The first step I must take is to live and work full-time as a woman for one year.  At the end of my vacation on August 26, 2013, I will return to work as my true self, Amiee Australia Stephens, in appropriate business attire.”  Stephens stated in the letter that eventually she would be undergoing “sex reassignment surgery.”

The Funeral Home has a dress code specifying dark suits for men and “a suit or plain conservative dress” for women. In the letter, of course, Stephens indicated that she would wear “appropriate business attire” as a woman.  In response to the letter, Rost fired Stephens on August 15, telling her, according to his deposition testimony, “Anthony, this is not going to work out.  And that your services would no longer be needed here.”  Stephens testified that her understanding was that the way she proposed to dress was the immediate issue leading to her discharge.  (In his opinion, Judge Cox pointed out that there was no discussion in the depositions about other aspects of Stephens’ proposed appearance, such as grooming or hair style.)

Stephens filed a sex discrimination charge with the EEOC, alleging that she was fired due to her sex and gender identity. After investigating the charge, the EEOC concluded that there was “reasonable cause” to believe that Stephens’ “allegations are true.”  The EEOC also concluded, as a result of its investigation, that the Funeral Home was discriminating against its female employees because it provided appropriate suits and ties for male employees but required female employees to assume all expenses of complying with the dress code.

After the EEOC concludes an investigation resulting in a finding of “probable cause” without any kind of settlement being achieved, the case can go in either of two directions. The agency can decide to initiate a lawsuit against the employer, or it can notify the employee, in a “right to sue” letter, that the agency will not be bringing a lawsuit but that the employee may do so directly.  In 2014 the EEOC had begun an effort to establish that gender identity claims can be litigated under Title VII, and chose this as one of its first cases for direct litigation, so the EEOC filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on September 25, 2014.

As expected, the Funeral Home filed a motion to dismiss the case, claiming that gender identity discrimination claims are not covered under Title VII. Responding to the motion, Judge Cox agreed with the Funeral Home that gender identity discrimination claims are not covered, as such, but refused to dismiss the Title VII claim, finding that it was covered by 6th Circuit precedents involving transgender public employees who sued on a theory of “sex stereotyping,” derived from a Supreme Court decision called Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.

The EEOC’s complaint had presented the court with alternative theories in this case, including sex-stereotyping. If an employer discharges an employee for failing to conform to the employer’s stereotyped views as to how employees of a particular sex should dress, that may violate the ban on sex discrimination unless the employer can prove that dressing in a particular way is a bona fide occupational qualification necessary to perform the essential functions of the job.  Such potential employer defenses are generally irrelevant in deciding a motion to dismiss a claim, which is based entirely on whether the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint are sufficient to “state a claim” under the statute, so Cox’s decision denying the motion to dismiss did not address this potential defense.  The Funeral Home did not mention any religious freedom claim under RFRA in its motion to dismiss, either, and it would have been irrelevant at that point.

After the motion to dismiss was denied, the case proceeded to discovery, during which the attorneys conducted depositions of the parties.  After discovery, the EEOC and the Funeral Home filed motions for summary judgment, contending that there were no contested facts requiring trial and the court could rule as a matter of law.   After the Funeral Home had lost its motion to dismiss, the Funeral Home got new legal representation from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a so-called Christian public interest law firm, which raised for the first time the claim that the Funeral Home was privileged to discharge Stephens regardless of Title VII because Mr. Rost’s objection to her proposed mode of dress was based on his religious views against transgender status.

Rost asserted his belief that gender and biological sex are created by God and immutable. During discovery ADF presented evidence, not questioned by the EEOC, that this was Rost’s sincere religious belief and, furthermore, that he had consistently expressed that he sought to operate this family-owned corporate business in line with his religious beliefs.  There is relevant language about this on the Funeral Home’s website and in its literature.

Judge Cox’s August 18 ruling was presented in three parts. In the first, he found that the Funeral Home had violated Title VII by discharging Stephens over the anticipated dress code violation.  In the view of Rost, Stephens was immutably a man, regardless of what Stephens asserted about her gender identity, and thus was required to dress as a man consistent with the business’s dress code.  There are many precedents under Title VII upholding the right of employers to adopt reasonable dress codes that do not impose greater burdens on employees of one or the other sex.  The Funeral Home relied on these precedents, especially one from the 9th Circuit upholding the right of an employer to require women to wear makeup.  Judge Cox noted, however, that a 6th Circuit case had specifically differed with that 9th Circuit case, and had rejected the idea that a dress code would necessarily insulate an employer from a charge of sex stereotyping.  Referring to the 6th Circuit’s ruling in an early gender identity sex stereotyping case, Judge Cox wrote, “It appears unlikely that the Smith court would allow an employer like the employer in Jesperson [the 9th Circuit make-up case] to avoid liability for a Title VII sex-stereotyping claim simply by virtue of having put its gender-based stereotypes into a formal policy.  Accordingly. . . the Court rejects the Funeral Home’s sex-specific dress code defense to the Title VII sex-stereotyping claim asserted on behalf of Stephens [by the EEOC] in this case.”

However, in the second part of his opinion, Judge Cox found that the employer should prevail based on a RFRA defense. The Funeral Home argued that requiring it to allow a funeral director identified as male in its employment records to wear clothing specified for a woman presented an unacceptable burden on Rost’s right to operate his business consistent with his religious views.  Assuming the sincerity of Rost’s religious belief, which EEOC did not challenge, Cox found that the EEOC had failed to show that requiring the Funeral Home to let Stephens dress as a woman was the “least restrictive alternative” to achieve the government’s compelling interest in preventing sex stereotyping in the workplace.

Indeed, Cox pointed out, the EEOC’s own theory of the Title VII case was that requiring a particular mode of dress based on gender was a form of sex stereotyping, so its argument that the Funeral Home had to let Stephens dress as a woman under the employer’s dress code in order to achieve the EEOC’s compelling interest in opposing sex-stereotyping was contradictory. Cox noted that the EEOC had not presented any evidence of an attempt to negotiate with the Funeral Home about some sort of gender-neutral dress code that might be acceptable to both Stephens and Rost, and there was deposition testimony by Rost suggesting that a pants suit might be an acceptable compromise. The real problem, from this point of view, was Rost’s insistence that Stephens could not wear a skirt or dress.

Thus, the court concluded that the Funeral Home had a valid defense to the Title VII claim under RFRA, and granted summary judgment to the Funeral Home on that claim.

However, at the end of this part of the decision, responding to an argument by the EEOC that this ruling would severely undermine enforcement of Title VII, Cox pointed out that under 6th Circuit precedent the Funeral Home would not have been able to raise the RFRA defense if Stephens had filed suit against it directly.  “In the vast majority of Title VII employment discrimination cases,” he wrote, “the case is brought by the employee, not the EEOC.  Accordingly, at least in the Sixth and Seventh Circuits, it appears that there cannot be a RFRA defense in a Title VII case brought by an employee against a private employer because that would be a case between private parties.”

The 6th Circuit’s opinion is based on a close reading of RFRA, which can be construed to extend only to cases in which the government is either the plaintiff or the defendant.  That reading is controversial, but so far it seems to have been accepted in several of the circuits.  Thus, although in this case the Funeral Home was able to raise a RFRA defense because the lawsuit was brought by the EEOC, in the vast majority of cases, such a defense would be unavailable to it.

Since Judge Cox had rejected all of the other defenses offered by the Funeral Home under Title VII, consequently, it seems that Stephens would have won on the motion for summary judgment had she sued directly, leaving RFRA out of the picture.

In the last part of the opinion, Judge Cox granted summary judgment to the Funeral Home on the EEOC’s claim that the dress code violated Title VII because the employer provided suits for men but required women to purchase their own work clothes without subsidy. He found that this claim did not relate to the issues in Stephens’ complaint, so it should have been dealt with in a separate lawsuit.  In any event, it seems that the Funeral Home had reacted to the EEOC’s investigation by changing its dress policy to provide financial assistance to female employees, so this issue might be moot.

Judge Cox was appointed to the court by President George W. Bush. He was previously a Michigan state court judge and before that had been a partner in a Michigan law firm.  He is the older brother of former Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox.

Early press coverage of the ruling failed to note Judge Cox’s explanation that the RFRA defense could be raised by the employer only in a case brought by the government, thus making it sound, incorrectly, as if Cox had ruled that employers with religious objections to transgender employees are exempt from any non-discrimination obligation under Title VII. Cox made clear that, at least in the 6th Circuit, the RFRA exemption is only available in an employment discrimination case as a defense to a lawsuit by the government.

 

 

 

Supreme Court Stays Injunction against Gloucester School District in Transgender Restroom Case

Posted on: August 15th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

On August 3 the U.S. Supreme Court granted an application by the Gloucester (Virginia) County School Board to stay a preliminary injunction that had been issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Doumar (E.D. Va.) on June 23; see 2016 WL 3581852. Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., 136 S.Ct. 2442 (No. 16A52), granting stay. The injunction ordered the school board to allow Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, to use the boys’ restroom facilities at his high school while the trial court determined whether the school’s policy denying such access violates Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972.  What was unusual about the Supreme Court’s action was the brief concurring statement from Justice Stephen Breyer explaining that he had voted to grant the application as a “courtesy.”  The Court indicated that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan “would deny the application.”  With the vacancy created by the death of Justice Scalia last winter, the four conservative members of the Court – Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas – could not issue the stay, which requires a majority of the Court.

The court specified that the injunction was stayed “pending the timely filing and disposition of a petition for a writ of certiorari.” If the Court denies the writ (that is, refuses to review the lower court’s ruling on the merits), the injunction will go into effect.  If the Court votes to grant review, the stay would end when the Supreme Court issues its ruling on the merits of the appeal.

The lawsuit involves the hotly disputed question whether Title IX’s ban on discrimination “because of sex” by educational institutions prohibits a school from denying transgender students access to restroom and locker-room facilities consistent with their gender identity. It is undisputed that when Congress enacted Title IX several decades ago, there was no consideration or discussion about whether it would require such a result, and it was made clear in the legislative history and subsequent regulations and guidelines that Title IX did not prohibit educational institutes from designating access to such facilities as male-only or female-only. (Indeed, many states have statutory requirements that educational institutions provide separate restroom and locker-room facilities for males and females.)  Furthermore, a series of cases under the various sex discrimination laws over several decades had rejected claims that they extended to gender identity discrimination. As to Title IX, it was not until relatively recently, when teens began to identify as transgender and to begin transitioning while still in school, that the issue has heated up, and it was not until 2015 that the U.S. Department of Education, charged with interpreting and enforcing Title IX, took the position that the ban on discrimination “because of sex” included discrimination because of gender identity.

The Education Department’s interpretation, expressed first in a letter released in connection with litigation over restroom access in a suburban Illinois school district, was not entirely unprecedented, since several lower federal courts have ruled under a variety of sex discrimination laws that discrimination because of gender identity is form of sex discrimination. These include the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit, in a case under the Violence against Women Act (VAWA), the Boston-based 1st Circuit, in a case under the Fair Credit Act, the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, in a case interpreting the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit, in a case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 concerning employment discrimination.  However, challengers to the Education Department’s interpretation have argued that it is, in effect, a “changing of the rules” that can only be effected through a formal regulatory process under the Administrative Procedure Act, and not through a position letter in a pending case or an informal “guidance” memorandum.

In this Gloucester County case, Gavin Grimm had been using the boys’ facilities without incident after his gender transition until some complaints by parents to the school board resulted in a vote to adopt a policy requiring Grimm and any other transgender students to use either the facilities consistent with the gender indicated on their birth certificates (sometimes called “biological sex”) or to use single-user facilities designated for use by either sex, such as the restroom in the school nurse’s office. Since medical authorities will not perform “sex-reassignment surgery” on minors, it is impossible for a transgender youth to qualify for a change of gender designation on their birth certificate in most states, and some states rule out such changes altogether.  Grimm, who presents as male, sued under Title IX, claiming that the school district’s new access rule violated his rights under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause.  Judge Doumar initially rejected his Title IX claim and reserved judgement on the Equal Protection claim, disagreeing with the Education Department’s interpretation of the statute.  132 F.Supp.3d 736 (E.D.Va., Sep. 17, 2015). This ruling was reversed on April 19 by the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, 822 F.3d 709, which ruled that Doumar should have deferred to the Education Department’s interpretation of its own regulations and the statute.  The 4th Circuit subsequently voted to deny en banc review of this ruling, 824 F.3d 450 (May 31, 2016).  The 4th Circuit sent the case back to Judge Doumar, who then issued the preliminary injunction, and refused to stay it.  The 4th Circuit also refused to stay it, on July 12, 2016 WL 3743189.  The school district’s application to the Supreme Court indicated that it would be filing a petition for review of the 4th Circuit’s April 23 ruling, but in the meantime it wanted to preserve the “status quo” until there was a final ruling on the merits of the case.  Most pressingly, it wanted to ensure that its existing access rule would be in place when classes resumed at the high school.

At the heart of the disputes about Title IX restroom access cases is a fundamental disconnect between those who reject, based on their religious views or other beliefs, the idea that a transgender man is actually male or a transgender woman is actually female. (This is expressed in the controversial Mississippi HB 1523, which seeks to privilege those whose religious beliefs reject the concept of gender identity being discordant with anatomical sex at birth, by allowing individuals and businesses holding such beliefs to refuse to recognize transgender identity.)  Based on their political rhetoric and the arguments they make in court, it is clear that these critics believe that gender is fixed at birth and always coincides with anatomical sex, rejecting the whole idea of gender transition.  Thus, their slogan: No men in women’s restrooms, and no women in men’s restrooms.  Some premise this opposition on fears about safety, while others emphasize privacy, arguing that people have a “fundamental” constitutional privacy right not to confront transgender people in single-sex facilities.)  On the other side of the issue are those who accept the experience of transgender people and the findings of scientific researchers who have detected evidence that there is a genetic and/or biological basis for individuals’ strong feeling that they are misclassified.

This is, of course, not the only pending case placing in issue the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX (which has also been endorsed by the Justice Department as it has represented the Education Department in court), or the broader question of whether federal sex discrimination laws are limited to instances of discrimination against somebody because of their “biological sex.” A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that circuit precedent required dismissal of a sexual orientation employment discrimination claim under Title VII, and the plaintiffs in that case will be seeking rehearing by the full 7th Circuit “en banc.”  There are also two appeals pending in the New York-based 2nd Circuit appealing dismissals of sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, as well as an appeal in the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit by an employer seeking reversal of a district court’s refusal to dismiss such a claim.

There are also multiple lawsuits pending in North Carolina and Mississippi, and cases involving multiple states as plaintiffs in Texas and Nebraska, challenging the federal government’s interpretations of “sex discrimination” in either or both of the sexual orientation and gender identity contexts. Early in August federal district judges held hearings in several of these cases where litigants were seeking preliminary injunctions, either to bar enforcement of state laws or to block enforcement of Title IX by the Education Department.  The district court in Mississippi has refused to stay its injunction against the Mississippi law, and has been backed up by the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Mississippi will seek a Supreme Court stay, and in light of the Gloucester County stay, seems likely to receive one.

Justice Breyer cited in support of his “courtesy” vote a 2008 case, Medellin v. Texas, where the four liberal members of the Court had voted to grant a stay of execution of a Mexican national while important issues concerning the consular treaty rights of foreign nationals being tried on criminal charges in U.S. courts were unsettled and no member of the conservative branch of the Court was willing to provide a fifth vote as a “courtesy” to put off the execution until the underlying legal issues could be resolved.  In this case, the four conservative members of the Court clearly believed that the school district should not have to comply with the injunction until the underlying legal issues were settled, and Breyer was willing to extend to them the courtesy that none of them would extend in the 2008 case!

7th Circuit Panel Rejects Lesbian Professor’s Title VII Claim

Posted on: July 29th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled on July 28 that a lesbian professor could not sue the local community college in South Bend, Indiana, for sexual orientation discrimination under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, rejecting her argument that anti-gay discrimination is a form of sex discrimination in violation of that law.  Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 13746, 2016 Westlaw 4039703.

 

Weighing in on a question that has taken on renewed vitality since last July, when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that enforces Title VII, ruled that David Baldwin, a gay air traffic controller, could bring an employment discrimination claim against the U.S. Transportation Department, the court, while describing the existing precedents in the 7th Circuit as “illogical,” nonetheless concluded that it was bound by those precedents.

 

Kimberly Hively began teaching part-time at Ivy Tech Community College in 2000. She applied six times for full-time positions for which she claimed to be qualified, but she was always turned down and her part-time contract was not renewed in July 2014.  By then, she had already filed a complaint with the EEOC on December 13, 2013, representing herself.  This was about 18 months before that agency changed its long-standing position and began to approve gay Title VII claims in the air traffic controller case.   The EEOC’s position, however, is not binding on federal courts.

 

Hively did not file a complaint with the South Bend human rights agency. Although that city’s anti-discrimination law was amended in 2012 to include sexual orientation, the city does not have jurisdiction to legislate about personnel practices at state-operated educational institutions, and they are explicitly exempted from coverage by the local law.  There is no Indiana state law forbidding sexual orientation discrimination.

 

After the EEOC concluded that it did not have jurisdiction, it sent Hively a “right to sue” letter. She filed her claim in federal court on August 15, 2014.  The college filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that sexual orientation discrimination claims are not covered under Title VII.  Hively, citing the advances of gay rights in the courts, urged that the college should not be allowed to discriminate based on sexual orientation.  On March 3, 2015, U.S. District Judge Rudy Lozano granted the college’s motion.   Citing a 7th Circuit decision from 2000 and a 2010 decision by the federal district court in Indiana, Judge Lozano wrote, “While this Court is sympathetic to the arguments made by Hively in her response brief, this Court is bound by Seventh Circuit precedent.  Because sexual orientation is not recognized as a protected class [sic] under Title VII, that claim must be dismissed.”

 

Hively also alleged a violation of 42 U.S.C. Section 1981, which Judge Lozano had to dismiss as well, because the Supreme Court interprets that 19th-century statute to apply only to race discrimination claims.  HiverlyivelyHi also asked to amend her complaint to push a claim for breach of contract, seeking enforcement of the college’s published non-discrimination policy, but that claim would arise under Indiana state contract law, and federal courts usually refuse to address state law claims when they have determined that the plaintiff has no federal law claim.

 

The fate Hively suffered in the district court shows the perils of individuals trying to navigate the complexities of federal employment law without legal representation. A well-versed lawyer might have found a way to construct a 14th Amendment Equal Protection claim on her behalf, which could be directed against individual school officials if she could allege sufficient facts to suggest that they refused to consider her applications because she is a lesbian, although there would be no guarantee of success because the Supreme Court has yet to rule on whether sexual orientation discrimination claims against public officials are entitled to heightened or strict scrutiny.

 

Attorney Gregory Nevins from Lambda Legal’s Atlanta office represented her on appeal to the 7th Circuit, where oral argument took place on September 30 and a long wait began for the court’s opinion.  The wait seemed surprising, because the three-judge panel would most likely easily conclude, as had Judge Lozano, that circuit precedent would dictate affirmance.  But the court took nine months to release its decision.  (By contrast, the 7th Circuit issued its marriage equality decision in 2014 less than two weeks after oral argument.)

 

Judge Ilana Rovner’s opinion obviously took so long because the majority of the panel was not content just to issue a pro forma dismissal in reliance on circuit precedent. The first, shorter, part of Rovner’s opinion, performing that function, was joined by Senior Judges William Bauer and Kenneth Ripple.  But the second, much longer, part, joined by Judge Ripple, provides a lengthy and detailed discussion of how the  EEOC’s Baldwin decision has led to an intense debate in the district courts around the country about how those old precedents are clearly out-of-step with where the country has moved on LGBT rights.

 

Judge Rovner (or, more likely, Lambda Legal in its appellate brief) collected district court decisions from all over the country – particularly from circuits where there were no adverse appeals court rulings – in which judges have decided to follow the EEOC’s reasoning and find that discrimination because of sexual orientation is “necessarily” sex discrimination.

 

The logical pathway to that conclusion runs through the Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, which accepted the argument that discrimination against an employee because that employee fails to meet their employer’s sex-stereotypical views about how employees present themselves, is evidence of sex discrimination. That case involved a woman who was denied a partnership because she was perceived as inadequately feminine in her dress and conduct by partners who voted on the partnership decision.

 

Since 1989 some district courts have extended protection under Title VII to LGBT plaintiffs who could plausibly allege that they encountered discrimination because of sex stereotypes, but other courts have refused to take such cases, criticizing them as attempting to “bootstrap” coverage for sexual orientation into Title VII against the intent of Congress. What has emerged is a hodgepodge of decisions, resulting in the odd situation that, at least in some circuits, a gay plaintiff who is also obviously gender-nonconforming in terms of dress and speech may be protected under Title VII using the stereotyping theory, but a “straight-acting” gay plaintiff would have no protection.  Judge Rovner pointed out the irrationality of this, but, unfortunately, the 7th Circuit precedents seemed inescapable to this panel.

 

After discussing how various courts have pointed out the difficulties of distinguishing between a sex-stereotyping case and a sexual orientation case, she observed that the difficult is not necessarily impossible. “There may indeed be some aspects of a worker’s sexual orientation that create a target for discrimination apart from any issues related to gender,” she wrote.  “Harassment may be based on prejudicial or stereotypical ideas about particular aspects of the gay and lesbian ‘lifestyle,’ including ideas about promiscuity, religious beliefs, spending habits, child-rearing, sexual practices, or politics.  Although it seems likely that most of the causes of discrimination based on sexual orientation ultimately stem from employers’ and co-workers’ discomfort with a lesbian woman’s or a gay man’s failure to abide by gender norms, we cannot say that it must be so in all cases.  Therefore we cannot conclude that the two must necessarily be coextensive unless or until either the legislature or the Supreme Court says it is so.”

 

In this case, she pointed out, Kimberly Hively had not made any specific allegations of gender non-conformity, other than the implicit contention that being a lesbian, as such, was gender non-conforming in that she was attracted to women rather than men. Although a few district courts, especially after the Baldwin ruling, have found that to be enough to squeeze into coverage under the sex stereotype theory, the 7th Circuit hasn’t gotten there yet, and this panel did not feel empowered to extend circuit precedent to accept that argument.

 

While noting the significant advances in LGBT rights at the Supreme Court from Romer v. Evans (1996) through Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), Judge Rovner pointed out that in none of those cases has the Supreme Court said anything that would deal directly with the question whether anti-gay discrimination must be treated as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII. But she did observe the stark legal anomaly created by last year’s marriage equality decision.

 

“The cases as they do stand, however, create a paradoxical legal landscape in which a person can be married on Saturday and then fired on Monday for just that act,” she wrote. “For although federal law now guarantees anyone the right to marry another person of the same gender, Title VII, to the extent it does not reach sexual orientation discrimination, also allows employers to fire that employee for doing so.  From an employee’s perspective, that right to marriage might not feel like a real right if she can be fired for exercising it.  Many citizens would be surprised to learn that under federal law any private employer can summon an employee into his office and state, ‘You are a hard-working employee and have added much value to my company, but I am firing you because you are gay.’  And the employee would have no recourse whatsoever – unless she happens to live in a state or locality with an anti-discrimination statute that includes sexual orientation.  More than half of the United States, however, do not have such protections.”

 

She pointed out the additional oddity that even a “straight” employee who was discharged because her employer mistakenly thought she was a lesbian would have no protection, unless she could show her overt violation of gender stereotypes aws the reason for the discrimination. Straight people are not protected from “mistaken” sexual orientation discrimination!

 

Judge Rovner observed that this state of the law “leads to unsatisfying results.” It also is inconsistent with Title VII race discrimination cases that impose liability when an employer fires a white employee because he or she is dating or marrying a person of a different race.  It is now well-established that it is race discrimination to single out somebody because of their interracial social life.  Why not, as a logical matter, prohibit discriminating against somebody because of their same-sex social life?  The logic seems irrefutable.  “It is true that Hively has not made the express claim that she was discriminated against based on her relationship with a woman,” wrote Judge Rovner, “but that is, after all, the very essence of sexual orientation discrimination.  It is discrimination based on the nature of an associational relationship – in this case, one based on gender.”

 

Rover found it “curious” that “the Supreme Court has opted not to weigh in on the question of whether Title VII’s prohibition on sex-based discrimination would extend to protect against sexual orientation discrimination” and that even in “the watershed case of Obergefell” the court “made no mention of the stigma and injury that comes from excluding lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons from the workforce or subjecting them to un-remediable harassment and discrimination.” But, frustratingly, the Supreme Court has yet to tackle head-on the direct issue of anti-gay discrimination in a way that would provide guidance to lower federal courts and state courts, and has so far consistently denied review in cases presenting this question.  “In addition to the Supreme Court’s silence,” she observed, “Congress has time and time against said ‘no’ to every attempt to add sexual orientation to the list of categories protected from discrimination by Title VII.”

 

Ultimately the judge was very critical of the 7th Circuit’s precedent.  “It may be that the rationale appellate courts, including this one, have used to distinguish between gender non-conformity discrimination claims and sexual orientation discrimination claims will not hold up under future rigorous analysis,” she wrote.  “It seems illogical to entertain gender non-conformity claims under Title VII where the non-conformity involves style of dress or manner of speaking, but not when the gender non-conformity involves the sine qua non of gender stereotypes – with whom a person engages in sexual relationships.  And we can see no rational reason to entertain sex discrimination claims for those who defy gender norms by looking or acting stereotypically gay or lesbian (even if they are not), but not for those who are openly gay but otherwise comply with gender norms.  We allow two women or two men to marry, but allow employers to terminate them for doing so.  Perchance, in time, these inconsistencies will come to be seen as denying practical workability and will lead us to reconsider our precedent.”  She then quoted Justice Kennedy’s Obergefell decision, pointing out how “new insights and societal understandings” could lead to changes in the law.

 

Rovner concluded that it was “unlikely” that society would tolerate this anomalous situation for long. “Perhaps the writing is on the wall,” she wrote.  “But writing on the wall is not enough.  Until the writing comes in the form of a Supreme Court opinion or new legislation, we must adhere to the writing of our prior precedent, and therefore, the decision of the district court is affirmed.”

 

This conclusion is not totally accurate.  The full 7th Circuit, considering this issue en banc, could decide to overrule the prior precedent within the circuit without waiting for passage of the Equality Act (which would amend Title VII to add sexual orientation and gender identity) or for a Supreme Court ruling.  Judge Rovner’s extended critique implies receptivity to rethinking the precedent, so perhaps a motion for rehearing en banc could find favor with a majority of the judges of the circuit.

 

A little “circuit math” suggests the possibility: There are nine active judges on the 7th Circuit, with two vacancies for which President Obama has made nominations that are stalled in the Senate.  Only one of the active judges was appointed by President Obama, David Hamilton, and two were appointed by President Clinton, Chief Judge Diane Wood and Ann Williams.  All the other judges are appointees of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.  (There is no appointee of George W. Bush sitting on the 7th Circuit.)

 

The three-judge panel in this case consisted entirely of Republican appointees: Judge Rovner by the first President Bush, Senior Judges Bauer and Ripple by Presidents Ford and Reagan. Interestingly, Ripple and Rovner, both Republican appointees with long service on the court, agree that the precedent is “illogical” and not “rational.”  Unfortunately, Judge Ripple, as a Senior Judge, would not participate in an en banc rehearing.  But perhaps despite the strong 6-3 overall Republican tilt of this circuit, a full nine-member bench might find a majority for granting en banc rehearing and changing the circuit precedent.  That would require at least one more Republican appointee to join Rovner and the three Democratic appointees to make a 5-4 majority.

 

One of the other Republican appointees, Richard Posner, could be the prime candidate for that. He wrote the 7th Circuit’s magnificent marriage equality decision, which reflected his strong receptivity to reconsidering his views on LGBT issues, a point he has subsequently reiterated in a law review article musing about his changing understanding of LGBT issues since he was appointed to the court by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

 

On the other hand, it is possible that this opinion took so long to get out because some attempt was made within the judges’ chambers to provoke a spontaneous en banc reconsideration , but it was unsuccessful.  Who knows?  Mysterious are the inner workings of our courts.

The current status of transgender legal rights in the U.S.

Posted on: June 8th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

I was invited by Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum to give a talk at Friday night services at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah on June 3 about the current status of transgender rights in the U.S.  CBST observes Gay Pride Month with a series of guest speakers on Friday nights, and the first Friday of the month was designated as “Trans Pride Shabbat” this year.  Below is a revised version of the text I prepared for that talk, although on Friday night I left this text in my folder and spoke extemporaneously.

This month we mark the anniversary of a major victory for transgender rights in the U.S. which has generally been overlooked. There was much celebration last June 26 when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples were entitled to marry and to have our marriages recognized by state and local governments under the 14th Amendment .  What few mentioned in those celebrations was that this decision implicitly overruled some terrible state court rulings from around the country holding that marriages involving transgender people were invalid under the state bans on same-sex marriage.  By removing any gender requirements for marriage, the Supreme Court was not only opening up marriage nationwide for same-sex couples, it was also making it possible for transgender people to marry the partners they love regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.  This would also cancel out any argument that a married person who was transitioning was no longer validly married or should be required to divorce their spouse. However, since every state now has no-fault divorce, of course if such a transition takes place and the couple decides to end their marriage, there would be no impediment under state law to their doing so.

Let’s consider the current legislative status of transgender rights protections in the U.S. As of today, 17 states expressly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico).  Massachusetts prohibits gender identity discrimination in employment and housing, and the legislature is working on adding public accommodations, with the likely approval of the governor.  Most of these laws have specific exemptions for religious institutions, and some of the states also have Religious Freedom statutes that might be interpreted to provide exemptions for businesses whose owners have religious objections, but the question of such exemptions for businesses is not really settled and heavily argued.

Three states prohibit sexual orientation discrimination by statute but not yet gender identity discrimination: New Hampshire, New York and Wisconsin. In New York, however, the State Division of Human Rights earlier this year published a regulation stating that it interprets the New York Human Rights Law ban on sex discrimination to include discrimination because of gender identity, and the ban on disability discrimination to cover gender dysphoria, thus providing protecting to individuals who have not yet finished transitioning to the gender with which they identify.  That interpretation has not yet been tested in the courts, but it is consistent with some unfolding federal law developments and  also some older decisions by New York trial courts.

In addition, many states have now included specific protection on the basis of gender identity under their Hate Crimes statutes, which authorize enhanced penalties against people who perpetrate violent crimes against people because of their transgender identity. Also, many cities, towns, villages and counties around the country have passed local laws banning gender identity discrimination.  In states that lack such laws, many of the large cities have passed them, although there is a disturbing new trend in some of those states for the state legislatures to pass laws prohibiting localities from going beyond the provisions of the state civil rights laws.  Lawsuits are challenging these limitations.

At the federal level, two statutes, the Matthew Shepard – James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act and the Violence against Women Act, provide for enhanced penalties for those who commit crimes of physical violence against people because of their gender identity, but only when there is some connection to interstate activity.   The interstate activity requirement relates to Congress’s limited power to pass criminal statutes because Article I of the Constitution does not list criminal laws, so federal criminal statues are normally based on Congress’s power to regulate commerce between the states or to enforce other provisions of the Constitution.  In states that do not provide gender identity protection under their hate crimes laws, state prosecutors can refer cases to the US Justice Department, which may prosecute after determining that the crime implicates interstate commerce.  For example, if the weapon used to commit the crime had moved across state lines, or if the crime (such as kidnaping) involved transportation on an interstate highway, the federal Hate Crimes law could come into play.

Congress has not yet approved the Equality Act, which was introduced last year to amend all federal civil rights statutes to list gender identity and sexual orientation as prohibited grounds of discrimination. This would provide protection in the areas of employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, educational institutions, and all programs that receive federal financial assistance or are operated by federal contractors, and would also cover state government employment and federal employment.  The bill enjoys wide co-sponsorship among Democratic members of both houses, but has only a handful of Republican co-sponsors, and the Republican leadership in both houses has denied committee hearings or votes on the bill, so it cannot be passed unless there is a significant change in the political balance of Congress or in the views of the Republican Party.

The Obama Administration adopted executive orders last year that prohibit federal executive branch agencies and federal contractors from discriminating in employment or provision of services because of gender identity or sexual orientation. These orders are enforced administratively within the executive agencies, not in federal courts.  However, there has been recent activity in Congress placing the federal contractor protections into question.  An impasse between Republicans and Democrats has led to a stalemate over adoption of important pending spending bills and has generated substantial debate on the floor of the House of Representatives, because there are enough Republicans who will vote in favor of this protection (which essentially incorporates the terms of the President’s executive order into legislation) to add it to the pending bills as amendments, but then not enough votes from the Republican majority in the House to pass the resulting amended bills, which are generally opposed by the Democrats because they provide insufficient funding for federal agencies or place objectionable restrictions on the agencies’ actions.  This curious situation has brought the legislative authorization process to a temporary halt, and looms as a potential crisis as we move through this hotly contested congressional election cycle.

There are areas where there is much contention now in legislatures and the courts over transgender discrimination claims asserted under existing sex discrimination laws.   Is it possible that gender identity discrimination is already illegal, even when it is not mentioned as a prohibited ground of discrimination?  This is the hot issue of the day that may reach the Supreme Court next term.

In 1964, Congress considered a Civil Rights Act that was mainly intended to ban race and religious discrimination in employment and public services. However, the employment provision, Title VII, was amended in the House of Representatives to add “sex” as a prohibited ground of employment discrimination.  The term “sex” was not defined in the statute, and historical accounts show that the amendment was introduced by a Conservative Virginia representative, possibly as part of a strategy to keep the bill from being passed.  When Title VII went into effect in July 1965, some attempts were made to bring discrimination claims on behalf of gay and transgender people, but they were rejected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency in charge of enforcement of Title VII, and in early decisions by the federal courts.

In 1972, Congress enacted Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which forbids sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funding. The U.S. Department of Education and courts interpreting Title IX have generally followed the interpretation of “sex” under Title VII.  In early cases they refused to use this statute to protect gay and transgender people from discrimination.  Other federal statutes addressing sex discrimination, including the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, also received narrow interpretations of their sex discrimination provisions.

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some opponents of that bill complained that it might be hijacked by sexual minorities claiming that homosexuality or transsexuality could be deemed disabilities.  Republican Senator Jesse Helms from North Carolina obtained an amendment specifically stating that homosexuality  and “transsexualism” would not be considered disabilities for purposes of protection under this statute.

Interpretation of federal sex discrimination laws began to change after 1989, when the Supreme Court decided an important Title VII case, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. Ann Hopkins was denied a partnership at a national accounting firm because some of the partners thought she was not adequately feminine in her appearance and conduct.  One said she needed “a course in charm school,” and the head of her office told her she should wear make-up and jewelry and walk, talk and dress more femininely if she wanted to be a partner.  The Supreme Court said that this kind of sexual stereotype was evidence of a discriminatory motive under Title VII, and stated that Congress intended to knock down all such barriers to advancement of women in the workplace, signaling a broad interpretation of sex discrimination.

Over the following two decades, lower federal courts have used the Price Waterhouse decision to adopt a broader interpretation of “sex” under Title VII and other federal sex discrimination provisions. By early in this century federal appeals courts started to extend protection to transgender plaintiffs on the theory that they were suffering discrimination because they failed to conform to sex stereotypes.  Federal circuit and district courts in many different parts of the country have now found gender identity protection in cases under the Violence against Women Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  In an important breakthrough, the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled that discrimination against a transgender state employee violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, finding that the same standard used for sex discrimination claims should be applied to gender identity claims.

One of the key factors advancing this broad interpretation of sex discrimination was President Obama’s appointment of Chai Feldblum, then a law professor at Georgetown University, to be a commissioner at the EEOC during his first term. (She is now serving a second term at the EEOC.)  Commissioner Feldblum, the first openly lesbian or gay EEOC commissioner, argued effectively that the agency should adopt a broad interpretation of “sex” and apply it to discrimination claims by federal employees.  In three important rulings over the last few years, the EEOC held first that gender identity discrimination claims may be brought under Title VII, then that sexual orientation discrimination claims could also be brought under Title VII, and late last year that Title VII requirs federal agencies to allow transgender employees to use workplace restrooms consistent with their gender identity.  Building on these rulings as well as the growing body of federal court rulings, the Justice Department, the Department of Education, and other federal agencies with civil rights enforcement responsibility, have also begun to interpret their statutory sex discrimination laws more broadly.

The EEOC was ruling on internal discrimination claims within the federal government, but the agency has also undertaken an affirmative litigation strategy, filing briefs in cases pending in federal court brought by private litigants against non-governmental employers. In addition, the EEOC has filed its own gender identity and sexual orientation discrimination lawsuits in federal courts on behalf of individuals who filed charges against employers with that agency.

The Department of Education and the Justice Department have become involved in several cases brought by transgender high school students under Title IX, seeking access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

In a case that drew national attention last year, the Education and Justice Departments represented a transgender high school student in Illinois who was denied appropriate bathroom access and negotiated a settlement with the school district affirming the student’s rights. That attracted a federal court lawsuit against the government by Alliance Defending Freedom, a right-wing litigation group representing some objecting parents and students.  The lawsuit claims that Title IX does not apply to this situation and that their children’s “fundamental right of bodily privacy” was violated by the terms of the settlement.  It also claims that the Education and Justice Departments did not have authority to adopt this new interpretation of the law without proposing a formal regulation under the procedures established by the Administrative Procedure Act, which include a right of any interested member of the public to challenge a new regulation directly in the federal appeals courts.

This issue burst into wider public discussion when the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, passed an ordinance forbidding sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, and made clear that transgender people in Charlotte would be allowed to use public and workplace restrooms consistent with their gender identity. The ordinance was set to take effect on April 1, 2016.  This stirred up a storm in the North Carolina legislature, which held a special session late in March to pass H.B. 2, a measure that preempted local anti-discrimination laws and provided that in government-operated buildings the restrooms would be strictly segregated by biological sex, meaning, for example, that a person can’t use a women’s restroom unless their birth certificate indicates that they are female.  This would apply to public colleges, universities and schools at all levels and in all other government buildings.

The main focus of debate was Republican legislators’ argument that allowing transgender women to use women’s restrooms would present a danger to women and children of possible sexual assault by heterosexual men declaring themselves to be transgender in order to gain improper access. The argument is patently ridiculous.  Seventeen states prohibit gender identity discrimination in public facilities, as do several hundred local jurisdictions, but there are no reports that these laws have enabled male sexual predators to gain access to women’s restrooms, and existing criminal laws against public lewdness and sexual assault can easily be used to prosecute such individuals.  In a alternative argument, the opponents of transgender restroom access are now pushing the theory argued in the new Illinois lawsuit: that allowing transgender people into restrooms consistent with their gender identity threatens the “right of bodily privacy” of other users to avoid exposing themselves to the view of transgender people.  Those making this argument reject the proposition that a transgender woman is genuinely a woman and a transgender man is genuinely a man, and argue that there is a tradition of sheltering people in restrooms from the gaze of members of the opposite sex.

A similar rejection of the reality of transgender identity can be found in a law recently passed by the state of Mississippi, which specifically authorizes people whose religious belief rejects transgender identity to refuse to treat transgender people consistent with their gender identity, including in places of business when it comes to things like restroom access. This reverts back to the views that used to be expressed by courts during the 20th century, rejecting the idea of gender transition and insisting that gender must be defined solely by a determination made at someone’s birth and entered on their birth certificate.

North Carolina’s H.B. 2 and the Mississippi law are now both the subject of multiple federal law suits disputing the bodily privacy argument and forcing courts to confront the question whether discrimination against transgender people violates the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, Title IX and Title VII.  While this dispute was pending, the Obama Administration threatened North Carolina with enforcement action under Title VII and Title IX, and distributed a letter in May to educational administrators nationwide advising them of the requirement to respect the rights of transgender students and staff under Title IX.  The administration’s action attracted new lawsuits, including one filed by the State of Texas on behalf of itself and a dozen other states challenging the administration’s interpretation of Title IX.

Meanwhile, during April the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, ruling in a high school restroom case brought by a transgender boy under Title IX, held that the federal district court should defer to the Education Department’s interpretation of that statute, reversed the district court’s dismissal order, and sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.  At the end of May, the full bench of the 4th Circuit rejected the School District’s petition for reconsideration of the case, and on June 7 the school district filed a notice with the 4th Circuit that it plans to petition the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.   This will probably result in a “stay” of the 4th Circuit’s ruling, which will delay further consideration by the district court of the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction so that he can access the boys’ restroom facilities at his high school when classes resume in the fall.

Although legal commentators have suggested that it is unlikely the Supreme Court will agree to hear this case, it is at least possible. The notice the School Board filed focuses on two arguments: that the district court should not defer to the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX, and that giving transgender students the restroom access they desire violates the “bodily privacy rights” of other students.  The first argument would require the Supreme Court to overrule a precedent that has been strongly criticized by the Court’s most conservative justices.  The second would require the Court to broaden the right of privacy under the Due Process Clause to encompass a right not to share restroom facilities with transgender people.

We should begin to see decisions in many of the pending lawsuits in the months ahead. One of the complications facing us now in getting a resolution to this controversy is that the Supreme Court is operating with only 8 members since the death of Justice Scalia in February.  Senate Republicans have refused to hold hearings and vote on President Obama’s nominee for the seat, Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.  This vacancy may lead the Supreme Court to avoid taking for review controversial cases as to which it is likely to be sharply divided, such as the case from Virginia involving the transgender student’s discrimination claim under Title IX.  The court of appeals decision in that case was 2-1. The dissenting judge urged the school district to seek review from the Supreme Court.  Although there might be some delays in getting this issue to the Supreme, it appears likely that the next big LGBT rights case to go to that Court will focus on whether gender identity discrimination is a form of “sex” discrimination that can be challenged under existing sex discrimination statutes and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.