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 appeal moot. Did Grimm still have standing to seek the injunctive relief that he sought? 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 Senior U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar erred when he dismissed Grimm’s Title IX sex discrimination claim against the Gloucester County School Board and denied Grimm’s motion for a preliminary injunction. 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 in July whether this is so, and the court concluded that more fact-finding was necessary before the issue of its jurisdiction could be decided. A week later, however, Grimm’s lawyers from the ACLU agreed with the School Board to end the appeal concerning the preliminary injunction, submitting a stipulation to the 4th Circuit to that effect, resulting in a one-sentence order by that court dismissing the appeal. Grimm v. Gloucester Bounty School Board, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 16697 (4th Cir. Aug. 30, 3017). But they did not agree to end the case, instead filing an amended complaint on August 11, of which more details follow below.
Grimm’s mother originally 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 forbidden under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Grimm sought a preliminary injunction so he could resume using the boys’ restrooms at the high school while the case was pending. The Board moved to dismiss, 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, while reserving 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 Title IX.
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. Shortly thereafter, the Departments of Education and Justice sent a joint “Dear Colleague” letter to all the nation’s public schools that receive federal funds, more formally stating their position on Title IX coverage of the transgender facilities access issue and other issues relevant to equal educational opportunity for transgender students. Responding to the Circuit’s remand, 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, 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 they announced that the Departments of Education and Justice were “withdrawing” the Obama Administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter and issuing a new one that, in effect, took no position 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 granting the Solicitor General’s subsequent request to cancel the oral argument, vacated the 4th Circuit’s decision, and sent 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 directed the district court to quash the preliminary injunction and tentatively scheduled an argument to be held in September. 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 consisted of the sworn allegations that were presented to the district court 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. 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 were not sending the case back for a new ruling by the district court on the merits, just for a ruling on the question of mootness after additional fact-finding. Any determination by Judge Doumar that the case was moot could, of course, be appealed by Grimm.
But litigating over the issue of mootness with respect to the preliminary injunction did not strike the ACLU as the best approach at this point in the litigation, so it secured agreement from the School Board to move the 4th Circuit to dismiss the appeal, and proceeded to file an amended complaint. The new complaint supplements the original complaint with factual allegations bringing the story up to date, culminating with the following: “As an alumnus with close ties to the community, Gavin will continue to be on school grounds when attending football games, alumni activities, or social events with friends who are still in high school.” This would support his continuing personal stake in the issue of appropriate restroom access at the school. The complaint restates 14th Amendment and Title IX as sources of legal authority for the argument that the school board’s policy violates federal law. The request for relief is reframed to reflect Grimm’s alumni status, seeking a declaration that the policy is illegal, nominal damages (symbolic of the injury done to Grimm by denying him appropriate restroom access), a permanent injunction allowing Grimm to use the same restrooms as “other male alumni,” his reasonable litigation costs and attorneys’ fees, and “such other relief as the Court deems just and proper.” The school board can be expected to move to dismiss the amended complaint with the argument it made to the court in suggesting that the case was moot, but this time the standing question will be litigated solely with respect to Grimm’s alumni status going forward.
It appears from the docket number stamped on the amended complaint by the court clerk’s office, 4:15-cv-00054-AWA-DEM, that the case is now assigned to District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen, who was appointed by President Obama in 2011. Judge Doumar, 87, who issued the earlier rulings for the district court, is a senior judge who was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1981.
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. The Kenosha School District filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court on August 25. So it is distinctly possible, that the action on this issue will move there and this case may well end up being put “on hold” by the court if the Supreme Court agrees to hear the Kenosha appeal.