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Federal Court Awards Preliminary Restroom Access Relief to Transgender Students on Their Constitutional Claim

Posted on: February 28th, 2017 by Art Leonard No Comments

Switching the focus from Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to the Equal Protection Clause of the federal Constitution, U.S. District Judge Mark R. Hornak of the Western District of Pennsylvania awarded a preliminary injunction on February 27 to three transgender high school students represented by Lambda Legal who are challenging a school board resolution that bars them from using sex-segregated restrooms that are consistent with their gender identities. Evancho v. Pine-Richland School District, Civil No. 2:16-01537.

Acknowledging the Trump Administration’s February 22 action withdrawing two letters sent by the U.S. Education Department during the Obama Administration on the subject of transgender restroom access under Title IX as well as the pending U.S. Supreme Court consideration of Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. (certiorari granted October 28, 2016), a Title IX claim by Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy from Virginia, against his school district, in which that Court granted the school district’s request to stay a preliminary injunction issued by the district court (see 136 S. Ct. 2442 (Aug. 3, 2016)), Judge Hornak wrote that he “cannot conclude that the path to relief sought by the Plaintiffs under Title IX is at the moment sufficiently clear that they have a reasonable likelihood of success on that claim.”  A “reasonable likelihood” finding is a prerequisite to issuing preliminary relief.

On the other hand, Hornak concluded that the plaintiffs did have such a path under the Equal Protection Clause and decided to blaze a new trail on this issue, in which prior courts have focused their attention almost exclusively on Title IX in line with the general preference of federal courts to rule based on statutes rather than resorting to constitutional rulings.

Hornak prefaced his constitutional analysis with a detailed set of factual findings and a sharp focus on the particular facts of this case, including that the three transgender students involved all began their transitions a few years ago and had been using restrooms consistent with their gender identities without any opposition from school administrators or any disturbance as early as the 2013-14 school year. In each case, they and their parents had met with school administrators, who had agreed to recognize and honor their gender identities in all respects.  Each of them has been living consistent with their gender identity for several years, although because of their ages only one of them has obtained a new birth certificate.  Administrators, teachers and fellow students have consistently used their preferred names and pronouns and treated them accordingly.  It wasn’t until a student mention the restroom use to her parents, who then contacted the school board together with other parents and turned it into an “issue,” that administrators even became aware that the transgender students were using the restrooms, since nobody had complained about it or made it an issue before then.  Ultimately the school board responded to noisy parental opposition at a series of public meetings, first rejecting a resolution allowing the transgender students to use the restrooms consistent with their gender identity by a tie vote, then adopting a contrary resolution by a slim margin.

The judge also pointed out that the boys’ and girls’ restrooms at the Pine-Richland high school were designed with individual privacy in mind, with dividers between the urinals in the boys’ rooms and privacy-protecting stalls with internal locks for the toilets in both rooms. Locker room access is not an issue at this point in the case, since all three plaintiffs have completed their physical education requirements and are not using the locker rooms.  The school also has established numerous single-user restrooms that are accessible to students.  The judge easily concluded, based on uncontested evidence that the restrictive Resolution was not necessary to protecting anybody’s privacy, thus rejecting one of the main justifications advanced by the school board.

Neither the Supreme Court nor the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal trial courts in Pennsylvania, has ruled on what standard of judicial review applies to government policies that discriminate because of gender identity. The school board argued that this means the court should use the least demanding standard, rationality review, to evaluate its policy.  Judge Hornak rejected that argument, saying, “First, that means that applying an Equal Protection standard other than rational basis in such a setting is not contrary to settled law, and second, when an issue is fairly and squarely presented to a District Court, that Court must address it. Dodging the question is not an option.”  He also observed that an earlier decision by another trial judge in his district involving a transgender student, Johnston v. University of Pittsburgh, 97 F. Supp. 3d 557 (W.D. Pa. 2015), was not binding on him, and he found that case distinguishable on the facts and the law, not least because of the extended period in this case during which the plaintiffs used restrooms without incident and had full recognition of their gender identity by the school administration and staff.

Reviewing the various criteria that the Supreme Court has discussed in cases about the appropriate level of equal protection review, Hornak concluded that the “intermediate standard” used in sex discrimination cases should apply in this case. “The record before the Court reflects that transgender people as a class have historically been subject to discrimination or differentiation; that they have a defining characteristic that frequently bears no relation to an ability to perform or contribute to society; that as a class they exhibit immutable or distinguishing characteristics that define them as a discrete group; and that as a class, they are a minority with relatively little political power.”  Focusing on this particular case, he wrote, “As to these Plaintiffs, their transgender characteristics are inherent in who they are as people, which is not factually contested by the District.  As to these Plaintiffs, and more generally as to transgender individuals as a class, that characteristic bears no relationship to their ability to contribute to our society.  More precisely, the record reveals that the Plaintiffs are in all respects productive, engaged, contributing members of the student body at the High School.  Thus, all of the indicia for the application of the heightened intermediate scrutiny standard are present there.”

That means that the defendants have the burden to justify their discriminatory policy, and the judge concluded they were likely to fall short in that. “Specifically, what is missing from the record here are facts that demonstrate the ‘exceedingly persuasive justification” for the enforcement of Resolution 2 as to restroom use by these Plaintiffs that is substantially related to an important governmental interest,” wrote Hornak.  The Resolution was not shown to be “necessary to quell any actual or incipient threat, disturbance or other disruption of school activity by the Plaintiffs,” he found, and there was no evidence that it was necessary to “address any such threat or disturbance by anyone else in the High School restrooms.” Furthermore, it did not address any privacy concern “that is not already well addressed by the physical layout of the bathrooms,” he found, continuing, “it would appear to the Court that anyone using the toilets or  urinals at the High School is afforded actual physical privacy from others viewing their external sex organs and excretory functions.  Conversely, others in the restrooms are shielded from such views.”  And the school’s existing code of conduct as well as state laws already exist to deal with any “unlawful malicious ‘peeping Tom’ activity by anyone pretending to be transgender,” he wrote, dismissing a concern raised by the defendants as a hypothetical justification for the policy.

The school board argued that some parents had threatened to withdraw their students from school if the Board did not keep transgender students out of the restrooms, but the court was not willing to countenance this as a justification for the policy. “If adopting and implementing a school policy or practice based on those individual determinations or preferences of parents – no matter how sincerely held – runs counter to the legal obligations of the District,” he wrote, “then the District’s and the Board’s legal obligations must prevail. Those obligations to the law take precedence over responding to constituent desires,” because the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause “is neither applied nor construed by popular vote.”

Furthermore, rejecting the Board’s argument that enjoining the Resolution while the case proceeds was an improper change of the “status quo,” the court found that for several years the plaintiffs freely using the restrooms consistent with their gender identity was the “status quo,” even if school officials claimed they were unaware of it. This was a “persistently-applied custom or practice” which had the same weight as a written policy and, of course, until the Resolution was adopted, the District had no written policy on this issue.  The court rejected the defendants’ argument that the availability of single-user restrooms “sprinkled around the High School” provided a sufficient “safety valve” for the plaintiffs, making an injunction unnecessary.  “Given that settled precedent provides that impermissible distinctions by official edict cause tangible Constitutional harm,” he wrote, “the law does not impose on the Plaintiffs the obligation to use single-user facilities in order to ‘solve the problem.’” He found that this was “no answer under the Equal Protection Clause that those impermissibly singled out for different treatment can, and therefore must, themselves ‘solve the problem’ by further separating themselves from their peers.”

He easily concluded that the differential treatment inflicted irreparable harm on the plaintiffs, and that ordering the District to allow them to use gender-appropriate restrooms would “cause relatively little ‘harm’ in the preliminary injunction sense – if any harm at all – to the District and the High School community.” It was crucial to this conclusion, of course, that the plaintiffs had been using the restrooms without incident for years until some parents made an issue out of it.  He also found that issuing the injunction would serve the public interest by vindicating the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs.

In case a second-guessing court of appeals should disagree with his determination that heightened scrutiny applied to this case, Judge Hornak also stated that the Resolution probably would not even survive rationality review, since he found that it was not necessary to achieve any of the goals suggested by the defendants.

Judge Hornak’s decision not to grant the injunction based on Title IX seems prudent in light of the unsettled situation he describes. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in the Gavin Grimm case depended on deference to the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the Education Department’s bathroom regulation.  With that interpretation being “withdrawn” by the Trump Administration in a letter that did not substitute any new interpretation in its place, there is nothing to defer to and the construction of the statute and regulation is now pending before the Supreme Court, which voted 5-3 last summer to stay the district court’s preliminary injunction in the Grimm case.  Hornak noted that the criteria for the Supreme Court issuing a stay in a case like that include the Court’s judgment that the case presents a serious possibility of being reversed by the Court on the merits.  What he omits to mention is that the stay was issued only because Justice Stephen Breyer, who would in other circumstances have likely voted against granting the stay, released an explanation that he was voting for the stay as a “courtesy” to the four more conservative justices, undoubtedly because they had the four votes to grant a petition to review the 4th Circuit’s ruling.  Under the Supreme Court’s procedures, five votes are needed to take an action, such as issuing a stay or reversing a lower court ruling, but only four votes are needed to grant a petition to review a lower court decision.  It was clear in that case that the Gloucester County School Board would be filing a petition for review and that there were four justices ready to grant it.  Judge Hornak interpreted that, as Justice Breyer clearly did, as a signal that the interpretation of Title IX in this context is up for grabs.  If Neil Gorsuch is confirmed by the Senate in time to participate in deciding that case, the outcome will probably turn on Justice Anthony Kennedy, who voted for the stay.  (Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan announced that they would have denied the stay.)

Judge Hornak’s ruling confirms that for the overwhelming majority of educational institutions subject to Title IX because they receive federal funds, it does not really matter whether Title IX requires them to afford gender-consistent restroom access to transgender students (or staff, for that matter), because as government-operated institutions they are bound to respect the Equal Protection rights of their students and employees. However, for non-governmental educational institutions that receive federal funds, either through work-study programs, loan assistance, or research grants in the case of the major private universities, their federal obligations towards transgender students depend on Title IX and whatever state or local laws might apply to them as places of public accommodation, which vary from state to state, only a minority of states and localities protecting transgender people from discrimination.

In light of the lack of 3rd Circuit appellate precedent on the constitutional issue, it would not be surprising if the defendants seek a stay of this injunction from the court of appeals, and there is no predicting how that court would rule, although the likelihood that the Supreme Court will issue a ruling of some sort in the Grimm case by the end of June might lead them to err on the side of caution to give the school district temporary relief.

Lambda Legal’s attorneys representing the plaintiffs are Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, Christopher Clark and Kara Ingelhart, who are joined by local counsel in Pennsylvania, Tracie Palmer and David C. Williams of Kline & Specter, P.C..

4th Circuit Revives Transgender Teen’s Title IX Claim Against Virginia School Board

Posted on: April 19th, 2016 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the Richmond-based U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals voted 2-1 on April 19 that U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar erred by not deferring to the U.S. Department of Education’s interpretation of its regulations to require schools to let transgender students use restrooms consistent with their gender identity.  Judge Doumar had dismissed a claim by G.G., a teenage transgender boy attending high school in Gloucester County, Virginia, that the school violated his statutory right under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act by adopting a rule that he could use only restrooms designated for girls or unisex single-user restrooms.  The court referred to the plaintiff by his initials throughout the opinion to guard his privacy, but the ACLU’s press releases about the case identify him as Gavin Grimm.  G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 7026 (April 19, 2016).

The high school had accommodated G.G. when, at the beginning of his sophomore year in August 2014, he informed school officials that he was transitioning, had gotten a legal name change, and would be expressing his male gender identity, by letting him use the boys’ restroom. After several weeks without serious incident,  some parents alerted to the situation by their children objected and pushed the school board to adopt its resolution after two public meetings in which indignant parents threatened the board members with political retribution if they did not adopt the restrictive policy.  G.G., now 16, has not undergone reassignment surgery, which is not available to minors under the prevailing medical standards for treating gender dysphoria, but has transitioned in all other respects and identifies fully as male.

The 4th Circuit is the first federal appeals court to rule that the Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX, as expressed in an opinion letter by the Department’s Office of Civil Rights on January 7, 2015, in response to this controversy, should be followed by the federal courts.  Since North Carolina is also within the 4th Circuit, this ruling, as it now stands, suggests that the “bathroom” provisions of the notorious H.B. 2, at least as they apply to public educational institutions, violate federal law, as the ACLU and Lambda Legal have argued in a lawsuit challenging that statute pending in the U.S. District Court in North Carolina.

Writing for the majority of the panel, Circuit Judge Henry F. Floyd observed that the court’s role in a case involving an administrative agency’s interpretation of a statute is most deferential when the statute and the official regulations that have been adopted by the agency are ambiguous regarding the particular issue in dispute. Title IX says that educational institutions that receive federal funds may not discriminate because of sex.  The regulations, adopted decades ago, provide that educational institutions may designate separate facilities for use by males and females, so long as the facilities are equal in quality, but never directly address how to deal with transgender individuals whose “biological sex” differs from their gender identity.  In this respect, concluded a majority of the court, the regulations are “ambiguous.”  As such, the Department’s interpretation of the regulations should be deferred to by the court when they are a reasonable interpretation of the statute.  Indeed, wrote Floyd, the Department’s interpretation is entitled to deference “unless the [school] board demonstrates that the interpretation is plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation or statute.”

District Judge Doumar had concluded that the regulations were not ambiguous, and refused to defer to the Department interpretation. Judge Floyd devoted a section of his opinion to explaining why the regulations are ambiguous.  “We conclude that the regulation is susceptible to more than one plausible reading because it permits both the Board’s reading – determining maleness or femaleness with reference exclusively to genitalia – and the Department’s interpretation – determining maleness or femaleness with reference to gender identity.”  When language can support alternative readings, there is ambiguity.  “The Department’s interpretation resolves the ambiguity by providing that in the case of a transgender individual using a sex-segregated facility, the individual’s sex as male or female is to be generally determined by reference to the student’s gender identity.”

Protesting against this conclusion, dissenting Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer (who was, incidentally, also a dissenter in the 4th Circuit’s Virginia marriage equality decision in 2014), found that it would produce unacceptable results by violating the “physiological privacy interest” of students who did not want to share restroom facilities with students whose biological sex differed from theirs.  Judge Niemeyer essentially articulated, in more elevated terms, the arguments that North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has been making in defense of the “bathroom” provisions in H.B. 2: that the privacy concerns of students who object to sharing facilities with transgender students should take priority over the interests of the transgender students.

But Judge Niemeyer doesn’t put it quite so crudely. Indeed, he suggests that the opinion letter from the Department authorized just what the school board did, by opining that schools could accommodate the needs of transgender students by providing unisex single-occupancy facilities for them to use.  Judge Floyd points out, however, that the Department’s advice was to provide such facilities for students who did not want to use multiple-use facilities.  In this case, G.G. wants to use the male-designated multiple-use facility as being congruent with his gender identity.  As to the privacy concerns, the court noted that the school board has made physical modifications in the boys’ restrooms by adding partitions between urinals and taping over visual gaps in the toilet stalls so as to enhance the privacy of all users.

Judge Floyd emphasized that because G.G. was only contesting the school board’s policy on restrooms, the court did not have to deal with the question whether other single-sex facilities, such as locker rooms and shower rooms, would have to be open to transgender students as well. Judge Niemeyer observed that discrimination “because of sex” had to mean the same thing throughout the statute and regulations, so he argued that the majority opinion opened up the door to allowing transgender students to claim a right of access to all such sex-designated facilities.

In a somewhat unintentionally humorous footnote, Judge Floyd noted the school board’s argument, reiterated in Judge Niemeyer’s dissent, that allowing biological males into the girls’ restrooms and biological females into the boys’ restrooms could produce “danger caused by ‘sexual responses prompted by students’ exposure to the private body parts of students of the other biological sex.’” Floyd observed, perhaps tongue in cheek, “The same safety concern would seem to require segregated restrooms for gay boys and girls who would, under the dissent’s formulation, present a safety risk because of the ‘sexual responses prompted’ by their exposure to the private body parts of other students of the same sex in sex-segregated restrooms.”  Yes!  Here is a federal judge with real empathy for hormone-infused teenagers of every sexual orientation and gender identity!

In addition to appealing Judge Doumar’s dismissal of his Title IX claim, G.G. was also appealing the Judge Doumar’s refusal to issue a preliminary injunction that would require the school board to let him use the boys’ restroom facilities while the case proceeded. Judge Doumar had refrained from ruling on G.G.’s constitutional equal protection claim, so his case was still alive before the district court even though his Title IX claim was dismissed.  Judge Doumar had focused his refusal of injunctive relief on his determination that G.G. failed to show that he would suffer irreparable harm if he was excluded from the boys’ restrooms while the case was pending.

The majority of the panel concluded that Doumar had wrongly refused to give appropriate consideration to the evidence presented by G.G. and his medical expert on this point, applying too strict a standard for considering evidence in the context of a motion for a preliminary injunction. The majority concluded that the appropriate step was to reverse the dismissal of the Title IX claim and send the case back to the district court for reconsideration of the motion for preliminary injunction, applying the correct evidentiary standard.  This means that G.G. will be back to square one before the district court, but with the wind of the court of appeals decision behind his back on key issues in the case.

G.G. had asked the court of appeals to reassign the case to another district judge. Judge Doumar made various comments in court that suggested bias, or at least a refusal to believe in the validity of the concept of gender identity, with references to G.G. as a girl who wanted to be a boy.  However, Judge Floyd pointed out, none of that objectionable language appeared in the written opinion that Judge Doumar released to explain his ruling, and the court was not going to conclude at this point that Doumar would not give appropriate consideration to the evidence when called upon by the court of appeals to reconsider his ruling, so the court denied G.G.’s request and the case will return to Judge Doumar.

The third member of the panel, Senior Circuit Judge Andre M. Davis, agreed with Judge Floyd that the Title IX claim should be revived, but would have gone further, contending that G.G. had satisfied the requirements for a preliminary injunction. However, since the grant of such an injunction is a matter within the discretion of the trial judge, he ultimately agreed to “defer to the district court in this instance.  It is to be hoped,” he continued, “that the district court will turn its attention to this matter with the urgency the case poses.  Under the circumstances here, the appropriateness and necessity of such prompt action is plain.  By the time the district court issues its decision, G.G. will have suffered the psychological harm the injunction sought to prevent for an entire school year.”

Judge Niemeyer’s dissent, reminiscent of his dissent in the Virginia marriage equality case, harps on the “unprecedented” nature of the ruling, asserting that the court’s “holding overrules custom, culture, and the very demands inherent in human nature for privacy and safety, which the separation of such facilities is designed to protect.” He also accused the majority of misconstruing the language of Title IX and its regulations, and concluded that “it reaches an unworkable and illogical result.”

G.G. is represented by the ACLU of Virginia and the ACLU’s national LGBT rights project. Joshua Block argued the appeal on his behalf on January 27.

Federal Court Explains Pretrial Motion Rulings Against Transgender Student in Restroom Lawsuit

Posted on: September 26th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar issued an opinion on September 17 in G. G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 124905, 2015 WL 5560190 (E.D. Va.), explaining his earlier bench decision in July dismissing the plaintiff’s Title IX count and his September 4 denial of the plaintiff’s request for a preliminary injunction in a dispute over restroom usage at the Gloucester, Virginia, High School. The plaintiff, a transgender boy, is being denied use of the restrooms designated for boys at the school. Judge Doumar found that Title IX does not require public schools to allow transgender students to use the restrooms that conform to their gender identity, so long as they are provided with “comparable” restroom facilities, and that the plaintiff had not presented evidence sufficient to support his request to be allowed to use the boys’ restrooms pending a final ruling on the merits of his constitutional equal protection claim.

According to G.G.’s complaint, although designated female at birth he began to feel like a boy at “a very young age.” By age 12, he had acknowledged his male identity to himself and by the time he was a high school freshman “most of his friends were aware that he identified as male” and “away from home and school, G.G. presented himself as male.” During his freshman year, starting in September 2013, he experienced “severe depression and anxiety related to the stress of concealing his gender identity from his family.” He alleges that this led him to avoid school during the spring semester and to take classes “through a home-bound program.” In April of that 2014 spring semester, he finally told his parents that he was a transgender male and at his request began to see a psychologist, who diagnosed him with gender dysphoria. The psychologist recommended that G.G. “begin living in accordance with his male gender identity in all respects” including restroom usage, and gave him a “Treatment Documentation Letter” confirming the diagnosis and these directions, stating that he was under treatment. The psychologist also recommended that he begin hormone treatment. In July 2014, G.G. petitioned the local court for a legal name change, which was granted, and G.G. requested that his friends and family use his new name and refer to him using male pronouns. In public settings, G.G. began using restrooms designated for males.

In August 2014, prior to the beginning of fall semester, G.G. and his mother notified officials at Gloucester High School about his gender dysphoria and his name change. The high school officials were very accommodating, agreeing to change school records to record his new name. G.G. and his mother met with the principal and guidance counselor to discuss his transition. They allowed him to notify all his teachers about his preferences. “Being unsure how students would react to his transition,” wrote Doumar, “G.G. initially agreed to use a separate bathroom in the nurse’s office” and he was allowed to fulfill his physical education requirement through the home school program to avoid use of a locker room at school. But after the semester began G.G. “found it stigmatizing to use a separate restroom” and requested permission to use the male restrooms, which was granted by the principal. G.G. used the male restrooms for seven weeks, during which the School Board received protests from parents on behalf of their sons about G.G.’s use of the male restrooms.

A member of the School Board introduced a resolution that would limit use of restroom facilities to “the corresponding biological genders, and students with gender identity issues shall be provided an alternative appropriate private facility.” A majority of speakers at the November School Board meeting supported the resolution, contending that G.G.’s use of a male restroom violated the privacy rights of male students and might “lead to sexual assault in the bathrooms.” At least one parent suggested that a non-transgender boy could come to school wearing a dress and demand to use the girl’s restroom based on the precedent of letting G.G. use the men’s room. G.G. testified, speaking against the proposed resolution and “outing” himself to the entire community as transgender. The School Board voted 4-3 to defer a vote on the resolution to its next meeting, but prior to that meeting issued a news release indicating that steps were being taken to increase the privacy of all students by modifying the restrooms to expand partitions between urinals in the male restrooms and “adding privacy strips to the doors of stalls in all restrooms.” In addition, the school designated three single-stall unisex restrooms, “similar to what’s in many other public spaces.” At its December 9 meeting, the Board approved the resolution restricting restroom use by a vote of 6-1. The next day, the principal instructed G.G. not to use the boys’ restroom, threatening him with discipline if he violated the rule. He was allowed only to use the restroom in the nurse’s office, the girls’ restrooms, and the newly-designated unisex restrooms.

G.G. began receiving hormone treatments shortly after that School Board meeting, deepening his voice, increasing his facial hair and giving him a “more masculine appearance.” He claimed that as he was presenting as male, he was unwelcome on the girls’ restrooms; and that girls had actually asked him to leave when he tried to use those restrooms before this controversy arose. He also alleged that the unisex restrooms were not convenient to the rooms where his classes met,=, and that using them would be stigmatizing to him, causing psychological damage.

On June 11, 2015, G.G. filed suit alleging a violation of Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination in public schools and the equal protection clause, and requested a preliminary injunction to allow him to use the boys’ restrooms pending a final ruling on the merits of his claim. The School Board moved to dismiss the case. The U.S. Justice Department filed a statement of interest in the case, arguing that the Board’s resolution violated Title IX. The court heard initial arguments on the motions on July 27, and promptly dismissed the Title IX claim. In a subsequent hearing on September 4, the court denied the motion for preliminary injunction, promising to issue an explanatory opinion for both rulings at a later date.

Turning first to the Title IX claim, the court found that an existing Title IX regulation appeared to authorize the School Board’s restroom use policy. 34 C.F.R. Sec. 106.33 “expressly allows schools to provide separate bathroom facilities based upon sex, so long as the bathrooms are comparable,” Judge Doumar wrote, and he found that the regulation is not “arbitrary, capricious, or manifestly contrary to the statute.” Rather, he found, it “seems to effectuate Title IX’s provision allowing separate living facilities based on sex,” so he gave it controlling weight. Rejecting G.G.’s argument that Title IX should be construed to prohibit only gender identity discrimination as such, he said, “under any fair reading, ‘sex’ in Section 106.33 clearly includes biological sex. Because the School Board’s policy of providing separate bathrooms on the basis of biological sex is permissible under the regulation, the Court need not decide whether ‘sex’ in Section 106.33 also includes ‘gender identity’.” Judge Doumar found that G.G. had not alleged that the unisex facilities or the nurse’s restroom failed to satisfy the requirement of “comparable facilities” under the regulation, so no Title IX claim was stated.

The court had to deal as well with the Justice Department’s argument that the court should defer to a more recent interpretation by the Department of Education, which was issued in a January 7, 2015 “Guidance Letter” stating that students should be allowed to use restroom facilities consistent with their gender identity, which itself was based on an interpretive bulletin issued by DOE in December 2014. “The Department of Education’s interpretation does not stand up to scrutiny,” wrote the judge. “Unlike regulations, interpretations in opinion letters, policy statements, agency manuals, and enforcement guidelines do not warrant” the deference that courts normally pay to agency regulations that are adopted under statutes pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act through a process of publication, public comment and, sometimes, public hearings before final official publication.

“An agency’s interpretation of its own regulation, even one contained in an opinion letter or a guidance document, is given controlling weight if (1) the regulation is ambiguous and (2) the interpretation is not plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation,” wrote Judge Doumar. Using this standard, he concluded that the recent guidance letter did not stand up, because “even under the most liberal reading, ‘on the basis of sex’ in Section 106.33 means both ‘on the basis of gender’ and ‘on the basis of biological sex,’” so the school was authorized to segregate restrooms based on the biological sex of students. “To defer to the Department of Education’s newfound interpretation would be nothing less than to allow the Department of Education to ‘create de facto a new regulation’ through the use of a mere letter and guidance document,” he continued. “If the Department of Education wishes to amend its regulation, it is of course entitled to do so. However, it must go through notice and comment rulemaking, as required by the Administrative Procedure Act.”

Turning to the motion for preliminary injunction, the court found that G.G. failed to meet the most important test: to show that he was likely to prevail on the merits. Unlike the motion to dismiss the Title IX claim, as to which the court had to accept as true all of G.G.’s factual allegations, on the motion for preliminary injunction Judge Doumar said that G.G. had to submit evidence tending to prove his allegations, and as to this he had fallen short, merely repeating the allegations of the complaint and failing to flesh them out with the kind of factual details that would show he was likely to win on his equal protection claim. Among other things, Judge Doumar faulted G.G. for failing to present an affidavit from the psychologist who had diagnosed his gender dysphoria. The judge pointed out that the expert psychological evidence submitted with the motion was by another psychologist apparently hired for purposes of the litigation who had only met briefly with G.G. once, and whose testimony was generalized and not specific to G.G. Thus, there was no evidence beyond G.G.’s own assertions that being banned from using the boys’ restrooms was psychologically harmful to G.G. G.G. also failed to provide factual evidence to demonstrate his contention that the unisex restrooms were so inconveniently located as to present a hardship. He claimed that because of the proximity problem he had to hold his urine and suffered urinary infections, but offered no medical testimony to support this claim.

Most importantly, however, Judge Doumar accepted the School Board’s argument that allowing G.G. to use the boys’ restrooms would intrude on the constitutional privacy rights of male students. He observed that courts have generally found that individuals have a constitutional right of privacy with regard to exposure of their bodies to the opposite sex. The underlying, albeit unspoken, aspect of this analysis was that the complaining boys regard G.G. as a girl and object to a girl being present and observing them in the boys’ room. The court cited a recent decision by a federal court in Pittsburgh, rejecting a transgender man’s restroom suit against the University of Pittsburgh, and observed that the privacy concerns are even greater in the context of high school students. To the court, when the clash is between the constitutional right of privacy of the male students and the alleged psychological harm to G.G. of having to use a unisex restroom, the balance clearly favored the other male students, at least for purposes of preliminary relief pending trial. Doumar emphasized that G.G. was raising a “novel” claim, that it was unclear that he could prevail on the merits, and that he had presented no factual evidence on the issue of any irreparable injury that he might suffer if denied the use of the boys’ restrooms while this case proceeds on his equal protection claim.

G.G. is represented by attorneys from the ACLU of Virginia and the ACLU’s national LGBT Rights Project, who might seek to appeal these rulings to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Although the 4th Circuit was traditionally a very conservative bench, President Obama’s appointments have turned it around, resulting in the circuit’s Virginia marriage equality decision in 2014, followed by a refusal to stay that opinion pending appeal. Thus, it is hard to predict how the 4th Circuit might react in light of the Justice Department’s intervention on behalf of G.G. in this case, but an appeal might not be hopeless.

EEOC Rules on Transgender Employee Restroom Rights

Posted on: April 9th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency charged with enforcement of federal bans on sex discrimination in employment, has ruled that a transgender woman employed in a civilian position by the U.S. Department of the Army, is entitled to use restroom facilities consistent with her gender identity, despite the agency’s objection to providing such access before the individual has undergone sex-reassignment surgery.  Although the EEOC had previously ruled that refusal to employ somebody because of their gender identity was a form of sex discrimination in violation of federal law, this was its first pronouncement on one of the great looming issues in transgender workplace rights: restroom access.

The case is Lusardi v. McHugh, the complainant being Tamara Lusardi and the named defendant being Secretary of the Army John M. McHugh.  The EEOC designates this as Appeal No. 0120133395.

Lusardi was hired as a male-identified person in 2004, as a civilian employee with the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Research Development and Engineering Center in Huntsville, Alabama.  The case decided by the EEOC relates to events from October 2010 through August 2011 when she was assigned to the AMRDEC Software Engineering Directorate, and was also doing work at the Project Management office, Aircraft Survivability Equipment, as a Software Quality Assurance Lead.

As early as 2007 she had begun to discuss her gender identity issues with the Division Chief, and she began the actual transitioning process in 2010, obtaining a legal name change from an Alabama court in April of that year from a male-identified first-name to her desired name of Tamara.  She requested that the name be changed in Department records, which was effected on October 13, 2010.  Two weeks later, at the request of the supervisor on the Aircraft Survivability Equipment job, she met with that supervisor and the Division Chief to discuss the process of transitioning to presenting herself in conformance with her gender identity, and the issue of how she would relate to co-workers came up, particularly regarding restroom use once she began presenting as a woman.  An agreement of sorts was reached, and memorialized in writing, that she would use a single-user restroom, referred to as the “executive restroom,” until she had undergone sex reassignment surgery.

She generally adhered to that agreement, but there were a few occasions when that restroom was unavailable or out of order, so she used the restroom designated for women, which brought forth objections from the supervisor and it turned into an issue.  There was also a problem of harassment, derived from another supervisor’s  apparent difficulty in accommodating to Lusardi’s gender identity.  This supervisor persisted in referring to Lusari with masculine pronouns or calling her “sir,” using her former first name, and “smirking” and “giggling” in front of others while stating “What is this, [Complainant’s former male name] or Tamara”?

Lusardi initially spoke with an EEO counselor about these issues in September 2011, and filed a formal complaint of disparate treatment and hostile environment with the agency’s EEO office on March 14, 2012.  A final agency decision was issued on September 5, 2013, concluding that she had failed to show a violation of the applicable ban on sex discrimination.  She appealed this ruling to the EEOC a few weeks later.  She also filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel, which is charged with ruling on internal executive branch personnel matters.  That office found that the restroom access denial was improper, in a report that ordered training for Army Department staffers but awarded no remedy to Lusardi.

Reversing the Army Department’s decision, the EEOC found that the disparate treatment in restroom access was a direct violation of the ban on sex discrimination.  Following up on the logical implications of its prior decision, it held that a transgender woman who is presenting as a woman is entitled to be treated by her employer as a woman.  This includes access to women’s facilities, regardless whether the individual has had surgery.  “This case represents well the peril of conditioning access to facilities on any medical procedure,” wrote the Commission.  “Nothing in Title VII makes any medical procedure a prerequisite for equal opportunity (for transgender individuals or anyone else).  An agency may not condition access to facilities — or to other terms, conditions, or privileges of employment — on the completion of certain medical steps that the agency itself has unilaterally determined will somehow prove the bona fides of the individual’s gender identity.”

The EEOC also rejected the agency’s findings on the harassment claim, concluding that the insults to Lusardi were intentional, and ordered the agency to take concrete steps to educate its employees and supervisors on their non-discrimination obligations. The EEOC also ordered the agency to undertake a fact-finding investigation to determine compensatory damages for Lusardi in connection with the findings of sex discrimination and hostile environment.

It will be interesting to see whether the federal courts will fall in line with this ruling, which contradicts older court opinions.