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Posts Tagged ‘Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972’

Pennsylvania District Judge Refuses to Dismiss Transgender Student’s Title IX and Equal Protection Claims

Posted on: November 24th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Robert D. Mariani denied a school district’s motion to dismiss Title IX and Equal Protection claims by a transgender elementary school student in A.H. v. Minersville Area School District, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 193622, 2017 WL 5632662 (M.D. Pa., Nov. 22, 2017).  The court rejected the school district’s argument that in light of the Trump Administration’s “withdrawal” of a Guidance issued by the Obama Administration on protection for transgender students under Title IX, the complaint failed to state a valid claim.

A.H., the eight-year-old plaintiff (whose suit was brought by “her next best friend and mother, Tracey Handling”), classified male at birth, “was diagnosed with gender dysphoria while in kindergarten,” wrote Judge Mariani, explaining, “Under the care of a pediatric psychologist, Plaintiff and her family have been exploring ways for Plaintiff to express her gender identity at home, in school, and in the community. . . Since beginning kindergarten in 2014, Plaintiff has continuously presented herself both in and out of school as a female.  Plaintiff uses a female name, dresses in clothing traditionally associated with females, is addressed using female pronouns, and is known to her classmates as a female student.”  Even though A.H.’s mother, supportive of her daughter’s needs, asked that she be allowed to use the girls’ bathroom in school, the School Superintendent, Carl McBreen, said they would not allow it in order to protect the privacy of other students.

This was not a problem during kindergarten, since the kindergarten classroom has a single-use bathroom used by all the students, and the only adverse problem during A.H.’s kindergarten year came during a field trip, when teachers required A.H. to wait until all the boys had used a male-designated bathroom and then allowed A.H. to use that bathroom. “The incident upset Plaintiff and resulted in some of her classmates asking her why she, as a girl, was using the boys’ bathroom.”  A.H.’s mother questioned the principal about this.  His response was that it was “school policy that a child must use the bathroom that corresponds with the sex listed on the child’s birth certificate,” and talked about “protecting” the other students from A.H.  However, despite repeated requests, the school never showed A.H.’s mother an actual written policy.  Her request to allow A.H. to use girls’ bathrooms during A.H.’s first grade year was turned down, with Superintendent McBreen stating that “Minersville isn’t ready for this.”  While giving a school tour to Mrs. Handling, the principal referred to A.H. using male pronouns, even after she corrected him.

After the Obama Administration Guidance was distributed to all public school districts, Superintendent Breen informed Mrs. Handling that her daughter could use the girls’ restrooms at school, but the school “has not created any policy on bathroom access for transgender students.” A.H. filed suit seeking a court order to comply with Title IX and Equal Protection requirements.

In its motion to dismiss the Title IX claim, the school first argued that the Trump Administration’s withdrawal of the Obama Administration Guidance left “no legal basis to support a Title IX claim against the school district for transgender discrimination.” After concisely relating the sequence of events surrounding the Obama Administration Guidance and the Trump Administration withdrawal, Judge Mariani, quoting from Evancho v. Pine-Richland School District, 237 F. Supp. 3d 267 (W.D. Pa. 2017), noted that “The 2017 [Trump Administration] Guidance ‘did not propound any “new” or different interpretation of Title IX or [DOE’s restroom regulation], nor did the 2017 Guidance affirmatively contradict the 2015 and 2016 Guidance documents.”  Indeed, the Evancho court had observed, the 2017 Guidance “appears to have generated an interpretive vacuum pending further consideration by those federal agencies of the legal issues involved in such matters.”

“Thus,” wrote Judge Mariani, “the fact that the Department of Justice and the Department of Education withdrew their interpretation of Title IX does not necessarily mean that a school, consistent with Title IX, may prohibit transgender students from accessing the bathrooms that are consistent with their gender identity. Instead, it simply means that the 2016 Guidance cannot form the basis of a Title IX claim.”  Lacking a binding precedent on this issue from the U.S. Supreme Court or the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals (which has jurisdiction over federal courts in Pennsylvania), Judge Mariani looked to the 7th Circuit’s decision in Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District, 858 F.3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017), as well as the earlier decision from the Western District of Pennsylvania court in Evancho.  He observed that Title IX courts have looked to precedents under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act for guidance in determining the scope of protection under law banning discrimination because of sex, and that both the 7th Circuit and the Evancho court, following such precedents, had concluded, in the words of the 7th Circuit, that “a policy that requires an individual to use a bathroom that does not conform with his or her gender identity punishes that individual for his or her gender non-conformance, which in turn violates Title IX.”  The 7th Circuit specifically rejected the argument that providing access to a gender-neutral single user restroom is “sufficient to relieve the School District from liability, as it is the policy itself which violates the Act.”  Similarly, the Evancho court, while noting that the law on this issue was currently “clouded with uncertainty,” determined that the transgender student plaintiffs in that case had “made a more than sufficient ‘showing’ in their Complaint of a right to relief under” Title IX.

Mariani pointed out that the Minersville school district had not attempted in its motion to distinguish these precedents or “present any arguments as to why this Court should not follow their holdings. The Court, further, sees no reason why the analysis and holdings of either Evancho or Whitaker are unsound when applied to the facts of this case.”  Mariani concluded, “Contrary to Defendant’s argument, a specific practice need not be identified as unlawful by the government before a plaintiff may bring a claim under Title IX . . .  Further, while the Court recognizes that the Amended Complaint seems to indicate that Plaintiff now has access to the girl’s bathroom at school and thus may not have alleged any continuing violation of Title IX, that does not undercut the fact that Plaintiff has adequately pleaded that a violation of Title IX occurred as some point in time.”  The judge also rejected the school’s argument that it did not, as a matter of law, have any “discriminatory intent” when it acted.  First, he pointed out, discriminatory intent was not a prerequisite to getting injunctive relief, just damages.  And, in any case, statements attributed to school officials could provide a basis for finding discriminatory intent.

Turning to the Equal Protection claim under the 14th Amendment, Judge Mariani found agreement of the parties that heightened scrutiny would apply to judicial review of the school’s alleged policy and its actions.  As to that standard, which requires the defendant to show that the challenged policy serve an important government objective, Judge Mariani found an absence of proof by the school district.  “Here,” he wrote, “Defendant does not advance any important objective that its bathroom policy served.  Instead, Defendant reiterates its argument that, in the absence of guidance from the government, Defendant made all reasonable efforts to accommodate Plaintiff,” but this argument fails.  “Plaintiff has adequately alleged the existence of a school policy that treated her differently on the basis of her transgender status or nonconformity to gender stereotypes.  As such, she has sufficiently stated a claim for relief under the Equal Protection Clause.”  As constitutional discrimination claims require a showing of discriminatory intent, the judge pointed to statements by school officials that adequately serve at this stage of the case as evidence of discriminatory intent.  Judge Mariani noted the similar rulings in Whitaker and Evancho, while also noting a contrary ruling from several years ago by a different district judge in the Western District of Pennsylvania, Johnston v. University of Pittsburgh, 97 F. Supp. 3d 657 (W.D. Pa. 2015), which for some reason the school district never even cited in support of its motion – perhaps because that opinion is somewhat of an embarrassment.

Judge Mariani was appointed to the court by President Barack Obama in 2011.

A.H. and her mother are represented by David L. Deratzian of Hahalis & Kounoupis PC in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Virginia Federal District Court to Determine Whether Gavin Grimm Case is Moot

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

On August 2, the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals announced that instead of holding oral argument in Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit challenging the Gloucester County School Board’s bathroom access policy, it was sending the case back to the district court for a determination whether Grimm’s recent graduation from high school made the case moot.  Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 14158.  The three-judge panel had tentatively scheduled an oral argument for September to consider yet again whether U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar erred when he dismissed Grimm’s Title IX sex discrimination claim against the Gloucester County School Board. The circuit panel speculated that its jurisdiction to decide the case may have been ended by Grimm’s graduation, but that it was not clear from the record before the court and the supplemental briefs filed by the parties earlier this summer whether this is so, and the court concluded that more fact-finding is necessary before the issue of its jurisdiction can be decided.

Grimm’s mother filed suit on his behalf against the school board in July 2015, during the summer before his junior year, alleging that the Board’s policy of requiring students to use restrooms based on their biological sex rather than their gender identity violated Grimm’s right to be free of sex discrimination protected under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  The Board moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Title IX did not apply to this dispute and that its action did not violate the Constitution.  Judge Doumar ruled on September 17, 2015, in favor of the Board’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim, reserved judgment on the 14th Amendment claim, and denied Grimm’s motion for a preliminary injunction to allow him to use the boys’ bathrooms as he appealed the dismissal.  While the case was pending before Judge Doumar, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice filed a joint statement with the court supporting Grimm’s claim that barring him from using the boys’ bathrooms violated the ban on sex discrimination.

Ruling on Grimm’s appeal of the dismissal on April 19, 2016, the 4th Circuit focused on the document issued by the federal agencies, finding that the district court should have deferred to their interpretation of the Title IX regulations, finding it to be a reasonable interpretation of the regulations.  The court reversed Judge Doumar’s dismissal of the Title IX claim, and sent the case back to Doumar to reconsider Grimm’s request for a preliminary injunction.  Reacting to the Circuit’s decision, Doumar issued a preliminary injunction on June 23, 2016, too late to get Grimm access to the boys’ bathrooms during his junior year but potentially ensuring that he could use appropriate bathrooms at the high school during his senior year.  But that was not to be.  Even though Judge Doumar and the 4th Circuit refused to stay the preliminary injunction while the case was on appeal, the School Board successfully petitioned the Supreme Court for a stay while it prepared to file a petition to have the Supreme Court review the 4th Circuit’s ruling.  Thus, as the 2016-17 school year began, Grimm was still barred from using the boys’ bathrooms at his high school.

The Supreme Court subsequently granted the Board’s petition to review the 4th Circuit’s decision, continuing the stay of the preliminary injunction, and scheduled an oral argument to take place on March 28, 2017.  Meanwhile, Donald Trump was elected president, took office in January, 2017, and appointed Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General and Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education.  Sessions and DeVos disagreed with the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX, and on February 22 announced that the Departments of Education and Justice were “withdrawing” the document that had been submitted to the district court and, in effect, taking no position at that time on the appropriate interpretation of Title IX, instead stating that the question of bathroom access in public schools should be decided by the states and localities, not the federal government.  The Supreme Court reacted to this development by cancelling the oral argument, vacating the 4th Circuit’s decision, and sending the case back to the 4th Circuit to address the merits of Grimm’s appeal as a matter of judicial interpretation of the relevant statutory and regulatory provisions, there no longer being an executive branch interpretation to which the court need defer.  The 4th Circuit tentatively scheduled an argument to be held in September, but then, after Grimm graduated in June, the parties filed supplemental briefs to update the court on what had happened since it last considered the case.

The School Board argued that the case had become moot because Grimm had graduated. “The School Board argues that, absent any allegation of a ‘particular intention to return to school after graduation,’ this change of status deprives Grimm of a continued interest in the litigation, rendering the case moot,” wrote the court in its brief order issued on August 2.  “The School Board states further that its bathroom policy does not necessarily apply to alumni, and that the issue of whether the policy is applicable to alumni is not yet ripe for adjudication.”  Grimm responded that it was enough that his possible “future attendance at alumni and school-community events” at the high school gave him a continuing concrete interest in obtaining the injunctive relief he was seeking in this lawsuit.  He also pointed out that the School Board’s “noncommittal statement” that the policy did “not necessarily apply” to alumni “falls short of a representation that the Board will voluntarily cease discriminating against” him.

The court does not have jurisdiction of the case unless there is an “actual case or controversy” between the parties. The Supreme Court has established that this means that the plaintiff, Grimm, must have a concrete interest in the outcome, which would mean that the policy he is challenging must actually affect him personally.  “Thus,” wrote the court, “a crucial threshold question arises in this appeal whether ‘one or both of the parties plainly lack a continuing interest’ in the resolution of this case such that it has become moot.”  The court decided that “the facts on which our jurisdiction could be decided are not in the record before us.”  The factual record in this case consists of the sworn allegations that were presented to the district court back in 2015 when it was ruling on the Board’s motion to dismiss the case, when Grimm was but a rising junior at the high school.  The parties’ assertions in their briefs are just that: merely argumentative assertions, not sworn statements of fact or actual testimony submitted in court.  Thus, the 4th Circuit panel decided it was necessary to send the case back to the district court for “factual development of the record by the district court and possibly additional jurisdictional discovery.”  They are not sending the case back for a new ruling on the merits, just for a ruling on the question of mootness after additional fact-finding.  Any determination by Judge Doumar that the case is moot could, of course, be appealed by Grimm, so final resolution of this case may still take some time, and it is possible that the courts will resolve the mootness issue against the Board.

If the mootness issue is decided in Grimm’s favor and the case returns to the 4th Circuit for a ruling on whether the Title IX claim was appropriately dismissed, it may yet provide a vehicle for the ACLU LGBT Right Project and the ACLU Foundation of Virginia, which represent Grimm, to get this issue back before the Supreme Court, although if they are ultimately successful in the 4th Circuit, that would depend on the School Board persisting in seeking Supreme Court review.  However, this issue is being litigated in other places, in some cases involving elementary school students, and it is possible that one of the other cases will get far enough along to knock at the Supreme Court’s door long before the plaintiff has graduated.  Indeed, while this litigation drama was unfolding in Gloucester County, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on May 30 in Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, 858 F.3d 1034, that Title IX prohibits a public school from refusing to let transgender students use bathrooms appropriate for their gender identity, so the issue has percolated further elsewhere in the country.  It seems only a matter of time before it gets to the Supreme Court, regardless of what the Trump Administration may say about the issue, unless Congress intervenes by amending Title IX, an outcome that is unlikely unless the Senate Republicans abolish the filibuster rule for ordinary legislation, as Trump has been asking them to do, so far without success.