New York Law School

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Supreme Court of India Eloquently Rules for Gay Rights, Striking Criminal Penalties for Gay Sex

The Supreme Court of India ruled on September 6 that the Victorian-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the ban on “unnatural sex” that has been used to penalize same-sex activity, violates the fundamental rights of LGBT people. Building on a pioneering ruling by the Delhi High Court, and repudiating a decision by a two-judge panel of the Supreme Court that had reversed the High Court ruling, a five-judge panel of the 31-member Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, called upon the jurisprudence of numerous other countries to interpret the Constitution of India as a bastion for human rights, locating personal sexual freedom for LGBT people as a fundamental part of such rights.

As is customary in the high courts of British Commonwealth countries, the Supreme Court’s ruling is not embodied by any single opinion. In this case, the five-judge panel produced four substantial written opinions.  Chief Justice Misra’s 166-page opinion was joined in full by Justice A. M.  Khanwilkar.  Each of the other justices on the panel produced their own opinions, amounting in total to an extraordinary outpouring of human rights rhetoric, totaling 495 pages in the pdf file released by the Court.

India did not have any sex crimes statutes before the British colonization of the country beginning early in the19th century, imposing imperial rule atop the existing structure of local governments and eventually insisting that the India enact a Penal Code drafted by British lawyers, modeled on English penal law, itself derived from the sexual prohibitions imposed by the Catholic Church when it was the established English Church prior to the English Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII.

Section 377 of that colonial Code, enacted in 1860, was actually engrafting a foreign legal concept onto Indian society, making it ironic that the present-day defenders of Section 377, pointing to the decriminalization of gay sex in the great western democracies, now protest that the plaintiffs were attempting to impose foreign western concepts of individual sexual freedom on Indian society!

The road to the September 6 ruling was a long one. More than a decade ago, an non-profit AIDS services and advocacy organization, NAZ Foundation, filed a lawsuit in the Delhi High Court, making a powerful argument that the existing sodomy law was an impediment to confronting the AIDS crisis in India.  After lengthy proceedings and much deliberation, the High Court issued its ruling in 2009, finding that Section 377 was inconsistent with guarantees of liberty and privacy in the Indian Constitution.

Unlike the United States, where the right to appeal a trial court ruling is limited to the litigating parties, in India anybody affronted by a court decision can petition to appeal it. The Naz Foundation ruling, greeted by jubilant street demonstrations and waves of LGBT people “coming out” for the first time, provoked the forces of religious orthodoxy in India to file a petition with the Supreme Court.  Interestingly, the government, which had declined all efforts to repeal or modernize Section 377, did not seek the appeal, and was reluctantly dragged into the case.  The Supreme Court normally hears appeals in panels of just two judges.  The appeal seemed to take forever, but it resulted in a ruling in 2014, under the title Koushal v. NAZ Foundation, which reversed the lower court, refusing to invalidate what had become a venerable statute that the new state of India after World War II had deliberately decided to keep, while amending or repeal various other provisions of the colonial penal laws.  The court minimized the significance of what it was doing, by claiming that only a tiny portion of the population identified as gay, so the constitutional claim was trivial, almost beneath the attention of the court.

The ruling threw fear into the LGBT community, as many had come out in reaction to the trial decision, and were worried that they were now open to police harassment, employment and housing discrimination, shunning by their families, and violence on the streets. All of these fears were realized to some extent, but the massive celebrations and new openness of the LGBT community in the wake of the High Court opinion, which was generally well-received in the press, had begun to move public opinion toward more acceptance of LGBT rights.  In fact, the current government, much more conservative than its predecessors on many issues, has not made defending Section 377 a priority.  As attempts were made to get first the two-judge panel and then the larger court to reconsider the Koushal ruling, the government did not spring to defend.  There are various procedural devices in Indian law for seeking review of a Supreme Court ruling, and ultimately what succeeded was a deluge of petitions to the Court from various prestigious groups and famous individuals, putting their reputations on the line.

A panel of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice Misra heard arguments in January 2018 about whether to convene an enlarged panel of judges to reconsider the Koushal decision. They were spurred on by other recent developments, including important Supreme Court decisions recognizing the equality rights of transgender people and the privacy rights of all Indians that were put in danger by the government’s adoption of new technology to track the identity of India’s 1.3 billion people.  The privacy decision, by a super-large nine-judge panel of the court, had included biting comments by several of the judges who criticized the Koushal decision as inconsistent with basic precepts of the Indian Constitution.

It was not surprising, when Chief Justice Misra appointed himself to head a new five-judge panel to hear this case, now titled Navtej Singh Johar & Others v. Union of India, that commentators all agreed that the court would definitely overrule Koushal and strike down the application of Section 377 to private, consensual adult sex, and such was the case. The only suspense, after gleeful press reports of the oral arguments held in July, was how wide-ranging the opinion would be.  Indeed, the government pleaded with the court to limit its ruling narrowly to the application of Section 377 to sexual acts, and to refrain from making any rulings about other kinds of anti-LGBT discrimination or same-sex marriage.

It is impossible in the scope of this article to provide extensive discussion of the four opinions. Chief Justice Misra’s opinion is like to be the most quoted and influential, for obvious reasons. Much of it is taken up with a philosophical treatment of the nature of the Constitution of India and theories of constitutional interpretation.  Misra fervently rejects any contention that a Constitution is a static document with a meaning and reach fixed at the time of its adoption.  In sometimes flowery language, he asserts a dynamic approach to constitutional interpretation that requires the courts to take account of changing knowledge and social attitudes, extending the broadly phrased principles of freedom, liberty and equality to ensure maximum protection for individual rights.

He sounds at times like recently-retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, quoting extensively from the Obergefell (marriage equality) and Lawrence (gay sex) decisions of the Supreme Court, and embracing Justice Kennedy’s favorite term for interpreting the liberty guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution: human dignity. Just as the word “dignity” recurs frequently in Kennedy’s gay rights opinions, Misra uses the term frequently.  For example, he wrote, “we have no hesitation to say that Section 377 IPC, in its present form, abridges both human dignity as well as the fundamental right to privacy and choice of the citizenry, howsoever small.  As sexual orientation is an essential and innate facet of privacy, the right to privacy takes within its sweep the right of every individual, including that of the LGBT, to express their choices in terms of sexual inclination without the fear of persecution or criminal prosecution.”

Misra emphasizes the theme of individual autonomy, just as Justice Kennedy did in striking down the Texas sodomy law in 2003. “The sexual autonomy of an individual to choose his/her sexual partner is an important pillar and an insegregable facet of individual liberty,” he wrote.  “When the liberty of even a single person of the society is smothered under some vague and archival stipulation that it is against the order of nature or under the perception that the majority population is peeved when such an individual exercises his/her liberty despite the fact that the exercise of such liberty is within the confines of his/her private space, then the signature of life melts and the living becomes a bare subsistence and resultantly, the fundamental right of liberty of such an individual is abridged.”

The judge took special note of how Section 377 has been oppressive to the transgender community. “We must realize that different hues and colours together make the painting of humanity beautiful and this beauty is the essence of humanity.  We need to respect the strength of our diversity so as to sustain our unity as a cohesive unit of free citizens by fostering tolerance and respect for each others’ rights, thereby progressing towards harmonious and peaceful co-existence in the supreme bond of humanity.  Attitudes and mentality have to change to accept the distinct identity of individuals and respect them for who they are rather than compelling them to ‘become’ who they are not.  All human beings possess the equal right to be themselves instead of transitioning or conditioning themselves as per the perceived dogmatic notions of a group of people.  To change the societal bias and root out the weed, it is the foremost duty of each one of us to ‘stand up and speak up’ against the slightest form of discrimination against transgenders that we come across. Let us move from darkness to light, from bigotry to tolerance and from the winter of mere survival to the spring of life – as the herald of a New India – to a more inclusive society.”

One could go on at great length, quoting inspiring language by Misra and his colleagues in their three opinions, but the point is made. This five-judge panel unanimously agrees that constitutional concepts of privacy, autonomy, human dignity and equality are inconsistent with Section 377 as it applies to private, adult consensual activity.  Justice Misra explained that other sections of the penal law, include some recently enacted as part of a more general law reform, have combined to ensure that sexual activity falling outside this protected sphere could be still be prosecuted, especially noting provisions protecting minors from sexual exploitation and clarifying the application of the rape law in a wide range of non-consensual cases than had previously been covered.  Although the court refrained, as requested by the government, from ranging beyond the direct question presented to it, there was language in the opinion which might be exploited later to attached anti-LGBT discrimination and bans on same-sex marriage.

This ruling may have profound consequences well beyond India, which is the world’s second largest county by population after China (which repealed its laws against gay sex in 1997) and until September 6, 2018, was the largest democracy to maintain criminal penalties for gay sex. As a result of this ruling, 18% of the world’s LGBT population has in one giant leap been liberated from criminalization of their sexuality.

The persistence of Section 377 or provisions derived from it as part of the penal codes imposed by Britain on its far-flung 19th century colonial empire continue to haunt the lives of LGBT people in many former British colonies.  The Indian Supreme Court’s action, relying on phrases and concepts that are common in the post-colonial constitutions of many of these countries, may prove a powerful example leading to similar rulings elsewhere. In the meantime, of course, new celebrations broke out in India as word of the decision quickly spread.

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7th Circuit Ruling Creates Federal Precedent to Protect Older Gays in Residential Facilities

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled on August 27 that a lesbian resident of a rental facility for seniors in Illinois may seek to hold the management of the facility accountable for severe harassment against her by other residents due to her sexual orientation.  The ruling reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge Samuel Der-Yeghiayan, a George W. Bush appointee, to dismiss her case.  The court of appeals decision marks an important appellate precedent for the protection of older LGBT people living in residential facilities.  The case is Wetzel v Glen St. Andrew Living Community, LLC, Case No. 17-1322 (7th Cir., Aug. 27, 2018).

Marsha Wetzel moved into Glen St. Andrew Living Community after her partner of 30 years died. Under the Tenant’s Agreement she signed with the facility, she is entitled to a private apartment, three meals daily served in a central location, access to a community room, and use of laundry facilities.  The agreement requires her (and all other tenants under their agreements) to refrain from “activity that [St. Andrew] determines unreasonably interferes with the peaceful use and enjoyment of the community by other tenants” or that is “a direct threat to the health and safety of other individuals.”  The Agreement also authorizes the facility to bring eviction proceedings against a tenant who violates the Agreement.

Wetzel was not closeted, speaking openly with staff and other residents about her sexual orientation when she moved in. “She was met with intolerance from many of them,” wrote Chief Judge Diane Wood in summarizing the allegations in Wetzel’s Complaint.  For purposes of ruling on the facility’s motion to dismiss her case, the court’s role is to accept Wetzel’s allegations as true and to decide whether those allegations, if proved at trial, would constitute a violation of her rights under the Fair Housing Act, which forbids discrimination because of sex.

Judge Wood’s summary of the Complaint makes horrific reading. “Beginning a few months after Wetzel moved to St. Andrew and continuing at least until she filed this suit (a 15-month period), residents repeatedly berated her for being a ‘fucking dyke,’ ‘fucking faggot,’ and ‘homosexual bitch.’  One resident, Robert Herr, told Wetzel that he reveled in the memory of the Orlando massacre at the Pulse nightclub, derided Wetzel’s son for being a ‘homosexual-raised faggot,’ and threatened to ‘rip [Wetzel’s] tits off.’  Herr was the primary, but not sole, culprit.  Elizabeth Rivera told Wetzel that ‘homosexuals will burn in hell.’”

The Complaint also describes incidents of physical abuse, focused on knocking Wetzel off the motorized scooter she depends upon to get around, spitting at her, and striking her from behind accompanied by anti-gay epithets.

When she complained to the staff, there was a “brief respite,” but soon the misconduct continued. Indeed, Judge Wood wrote, “the management defendants otherwise were apathetic.  They told Wetzel not to worry about the harassment, dismissed the conduct as accidental, denied Wetzel’s accounts, and branded her a liar.”  Furthermore, Wetzel alleges, they retaliated against her by relegating her “to a less desirable dining room location” after she notified them about one incident of physical harassment by another resident, “barred her from the lobby except to get coffee” and “halted her cleaning services, thus depriving her of access to areas specifically protected in the Agreement.”  They also false accused her of smoking in her room and one St. Andrews worker “slapped her across the face” when she denied having violated the no-smoking rule.

In what sounds like a transparent attempt to set her up for an eviction for non-payment, they failed to send her the customary rent-due notice sent to all tenants, but she remembered to pay on time, “but she had to pry a receipt from management.”

As a result of these management responses, Wetzel sharply curtailed her activities outside her room, staying away from common spaces including the dining room, and finally, fed up with this mistreatment, filed this lawsuit, alleging violations of the FHA as well as state laws. (Illinois laws forbid sexual orientation discrimination in housing and public accommodations.)

The facility did not argue in defense that the FHA does not ban sexual orientation discrimination. They could hardly raise such an argument in the 7th Circuit, because that court was the first appellate court to rule that sexual orientation claims are a subset of sex discrimination claims, under the similar anti-discrimination provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Instead, the defendant argued that the landlord cannot be held liable for discrimination by other tenants under the FHA without a showing of discriminatory animus by the landlord. Furthermore, it argued that FHA deals with refusals to rent, and does not cover “post-acquisition harassment claims.”  In other words, as Judge Wood explained, once an apartment has been rented, the defendant argued that the FHA is no longer relevant to claims brought by “a tenant already occupying her home.”  The defendant countered Wetzel’s retaliation claim by arguing, once again, that it lacked an allegation that defendants were motivated by discriminatory animus.

District Judge Der-Yeghiayan agreed with the defendants’ FHA arguments and dismissed the case. The dismissal of the FHA claim removed the basis for federal jurisdiction, and the judge declined to keep the state claims alive, dismissing them for lack of jurisdiction, although federal courts do have discretion to continue to consider state law claims in such cases.

Writing for the appeals court, Judge Wood relied on cases of workplace harassment decided under Title VII for a standard to apply to a harassment case brought under the FHA, for which there was no precedent in the 7th Circuit.  “The harassment Wetzel describes plausibly can be viewed as both severe and pervasive,” she wrote, referring to the Title VII standard.  “For 15 months, she was bombarded with threats, slurs, derisive comments about her family, taunts about a deadly massacre, physical violence, and spit.  The defendants dismiss this litany of abuse as no more than ordinary ‘squabbles’ and ‘bickering’ between ‘irascible,’ ‘crotchety senior resident[s].’  A jury would be entitled to see the story otherwise.”

The question for the court was whether there was a basis to impute liability to St. Andrew for the hostile housing environment, a question new for the 7th Circuit.  Again, the court borrowed from principles established under another statute, this time focusing more on Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, under which schools have been held liable for harassment of students by other students, when the harassment was brought to the attention of school authorities and they failed to take appropriate steps to assure that the harassed students were not denied equal educational opportunity because of their sex.

The question was whether the facility management had “actual knowledge of the severe harassment Wetzel was enduring and whether they were deliberately indifferent to it. If so,” wrote the judge, “they subjected Wetzel to conduct that the FHA forbids.”  The court rejected St. Andrew’s argument that the landlord-tenant relationship is so different from the school-student relationship as to make such a test inappropriate.  The court, finding that the defendant had inaccurately described the court’s holding, responded: “We have said only that the duty not to discriminate in housing conditions encompasses the duty not to permit known harassment on protected grounds. The landlord does have responsibility over the common areas of the building, which is where the majority of Wetzel’s harassment took place.  And the incidents within her apartment occurred precisely because the landlord was exercising a right to enter.”

The court rejected St. Andrew’s argument that its ruling would unfairly hold St. Andrew liable for actions it was “incapable of addressing,” pointing out that the tenant Agreement signed by all residents imposed obligations on tenants not to engage in conduct that would constitute a “direct threat to the health and safety of other individuals” and to refrain from conduct that would “unreasonably” interfere with “the peaceful use and enjoyment of the community by other tenants.” This is, on its face, directly applicable to the conduct of other residents directed at Wetzel.  And the Agreement gives the facility the right to seek to evict tenants who violate these rules.  Yet, according to Wetzel’s Complaint, the facility took action against her for complaining rather than against her harassers for their misconduct.

The court also noted a rule published by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2016, providing that a landlord could be held liable under the FHA for failing to “take prompt action to correct and end a discriminatory housing practice by a third party” (such as a fellow resident in a rental building) if the landlord “knew or should have known of the discriminatory conduct and had the power to correct it.” The court said it did not need to rely on this rule, however, stating that “it is enough for present purposes to say that nothing in the HUD rule standings in the way of recognizing Wetzel’s theory” for landlord liability in her case.

The court also discounted St. Andrew’s argument that this case is just about “bad manners” by some residents. “It is important,” wrote Wood, “to recognize that the facts Wetzel has presented (which we must accept at this stage) go far beyond mere rudeness, all the way to direct physical violence.”  She noted that under Title VII courts have routinely had to distinguish between hostile environment harassment and mere incivility.

The court also decisively rejected St. Andrew’s claim that the FHA anti-discrimination provision does not apply once the apartment is leased to the tenant. The statute bans discrimination regarding “services or facilities,” and the court pointed out that “few ‘services or facilities’ are provided prior to the point of sale or rental; far more attach to a resident’s occupancy.”  In this case, Wetzel’s allegations included her virtual exclusion from the enjoyment of the common areas of the building, and denial of certain services to which she was entitled under the tenant Agreement.  “At a minimum, then,” wrote the court, “Wetzel has a cognizable post-acquisition claim because discrimination affected the provision of services and facilities connected to her rental.  Beyond that, the discrimination diminished the privileges of Wetzel’s rental.”

The court also rejected St. Andrew’s argument, which the district court had accepted, that the anti-retaliation provision of the statute required proof of the landlord’s discriminatory intent. “Indeed,” wrote Judge Wood, “if we were to read the FHA’s anti-retaliation provision to require that a plaintiff allege discriminatory animus, it would be an anomaly.  Like all anti-retaliation provisions, it provides protections not because of who people are, but because of what they do.”  The focus, thus, is on whether the landlord takes some adverse action after a tenant complains about violation of her rights under the FHA, not whether the landlord is biased against somebody because she is a lesbian.

In sending the case back to the district court, the Court of Appeals revived Wetzel’s FHA claim and also directed to the court to “reinstate the state-law claims that were dismissed for want of jurisdiction.”

Wetzel is represented by Lambda Legal and cooperating attorneys from Foley & Lardner LLP.

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New Jersey Appeals Court Rules Lesbian Co-Parent May Seek “Bystander” Emotional Distress Compensation for Death of Child She was Raising With Her Same-Sex Partner

 

The New Jersey Appellate Division, the state’s intermediate appeals court, issued an important decision on August 17 expanding the range of “bystanders” to whom negligent actors may have liability for causing emotional distress to include non-marital same-sex families. A unanimous three-judge panel, taking account of the momentous developments in public attitudes about LGBT families over the past 38 years, ruled in Moreland v. Parks, 2018 WL 3945312, 2018 N.J. Super. LEXIS 120, that the lesbian co-parent of a young child who died as a consequence of a tragic traffic incident should not have been dismissed from the case by a Mercer County trial judge.

It was as recently as 1980 that the New Jersey Supreme Court first recognized, in the case of Portee v. Jaffee, 84 N.J. 88, that a mother who witnessed the agonizing death of her young son, who had become trapped between an elevator’s outer doors and the wall of the elevator shaft, could sue for the emotional distress she suffered due to the negligence of the defendant building owners and the elevator company in causing her son’s death. Through a slow process of doctrinal evolution, the courts have gradually shed their earlier reluctance to award damages for emotional distress to people who had not themselves suffered a direct physical injury, but the courts were cautious about expanding the range of such potential liability.

Portee is New Jersey’s controlling state Supreme Court precedent in “bystander” cases, and the Portee court ruled that bystanders eligible to seek compensation for severe emotional distress in such cases should be limited to “a marital or intimate, familial relationship between the plaintiff and the injured person.” In a further development in New Jersey law, the Supreme Court ruled in Dunphy v. Gregor, 136 N.J. 99 (1994), that the fiancé of a man killed in a traffic incident, who had witnessed the vehicle strike his body and attempted to comfort him while awaiting an ambulance, could sue the driver of the vehicle for negligent infliction of emotional distress, even though couple were not yet legally married.  The court emphasized that they were cohabiting and engaged to be married at the time, and considered this a sufficient “familial relationship.”

In the Moreland case decided on August 17, co-plaintiff Valerie Benning was standing on a street corner with her then-same-sex partner (now spouse), I’Asia Moreland and their children. Benning and Moreland had been living together for seventeen months, and were jointly raising Moreland’s two children (who were born before their relationship began) and Benning’s young godson.  Benning was holding the hand of two-year-old L’Maya as they waited for the traffic signal to change so they could cross the street to attend the “Disney on Ice” show playing at the Sun Bank Arts Center in Trenton.  Suddenly, a fire truck collided in the intersection with a pickup truck, and the pickup truck struck L’Maya, who was “propelled” sixty-five feet south of the intersection, and who later died from her injuries in the hospital.

Benning was also knocked down, and the next thing she remembered was lying on the ground and the confused panic that ensued around her, struggling to her feet and running towards L’Maya and hearing screaming from observers of the scene, then the ambulance trip to the hospital and the hysteria she suffered upon learning L’Maya was dead. The opinion quotes extensively from her deposition describing her experience, and the emotional and psychological trauma she suffered.

Moreland and Benning filed suit against multiple defendants, claiming a variety of damages. The Appellate Division’s ruling was about the trial judge’s decision to grant the defendants’ motion to dismiss Benning’s claim for compensation for the emotional distress she suffered as a “bystander” to the events causing L’Maya’s death.

At the time of this incident in 2009, Moreland and Benning were not legally related to each other, and Benning was not legally related to L’Maya. (Marriage equality did not come to New Jersey until several years later, at which time the women did marry, but as of 2009 they had not registered as N.J. civil union partners.)

The trial judge had to determine whether Benning’s relationship to L’Maya came within the scope of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling in Portee, of an “intimate, familial relationship between plaintiff and the injured person.” The trial judge, who is not named in the court’s opinion, said that an “intimate” relationship would not “suffice” unless it could be considered “familial.”  “There is a requirement that they have to be family,” wrote the judge.  “Portee talks about familial relationship but it didn’t say family-ish or something similar to a family.  It says familial and there are cases that must use the word family.  It has to be family and there’s no question of fact that Ms. Benning was not.  The evidence is that she was a girlfriend and she might have been part of the child’s household, but by any definition that I can find in the law about family, Ms. Benning doesn’t meet it.  The undisputed facts are that she was neither a biological or adoptive parent.”

The judge also noted the lack of any expert psychological testimony. To the trial judge, it wasn’t enough that there was evidence that within weeks of Benning and Moreland living together, L’Maya had begun referring to Benning as “mom.” Said the judge, “just using the word mom all by itself doesn’t count for much, whether there’s a secure relationship, a bonded relationship, a reliant relationship, whether this is someone that the two-year-old would have looked to for a comfort, the facts just aren’t there to be able to know those things.”

The trial judge pointed out that the kind of evidence that would exist if there was a custody or visitation or adoption proceeding, such as a psychologist’s report, was unfortunately missing in this case.

The court also distinguished the Dunphy case, writing, “Ms. Moreland and Ms. Benning weren’t even engaged at the time. I understand the laws regarding same sex relationships had change over time but there was a statute that did allow for that in New Jersey and whether they could have availed themselves of any such laws in other jurisdictions hasn’t been addressed in any of the papers” submitted to the court.  In ruling to dismiss the claim, the trial judge wrote, “Ms. Benning was a part of a very small child’s life for 17 months at most.  There’s no evidence that there was any permanent bond or that the relationship that she shared with the decedent was one that was deep, lasting, and genuinely intimate.”

Benning’s lawyer argued that dismissing this claim was inappropriate, because the question of “familial relationship” required a full hearing of the facts about this relationship, and should not be disposed of as a “matter of law” without an opportunity for such a hearing. They asked the Appellate Division to review this dismissal of the claim, but at first it refused to do so.  Then they appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court, which directed the Appellate Division to accept the appeal, solely to address the question “whether Benning falls within the class of litigants entitled to bring a civil action against defendants under the tort of negligent infliction of emotional distress.”

Writing for the Appellate Division panel, Judge Jose L. Fuentes traced the development of this legal doctrine in New Jersey through Portee and Dunphy, writing, “Critical to our analysis here is not only the Dunphy Court’s unambiguous rejection of any attempt to restrict the claimants to married persons, but also the articulation of the public policy underpinning the tort itself: ‘The basis for that protection is the existence of an intimate familial relationship with the victim of the negligence. . . When that emotional security is devastated because one witnesses, in close and direct proximity, an accident resulting in the wrongful death or grievous bodily injury of a person with whom one shares an intimate familial relationship, the infliction of that severe emotional injury may be the basis of recovery against the wrongdoer.”

The Appellate Division concluded that Benning had “presented sufficient evidence from which a jury could find that she and two-year-old L’Maya had an intimate familial relationship at the time of the child’s tragic death.” The trial court’s job in ruling on this type of motion was to view the evidence presented up to that point in “the light most favorable to the non-moving party,” and to ask whether a jury could conclude from that evidence that Benning and L’Maya had a familial relationship.  “A rational jury can find that Benning was a de facto mother to this child, and felt her loss as deeply as any parent facing that horrific event,” wrote Judge Fuentes.  “Benning’s deposition testimony supports this finding.”

Fuentes’ opinion noted how social change has expanded the public’s understanding far beyond what it was when Portee was decided in 1980. “Thirty-eight years ago,” he wrote, “gay, lesbian, and transgender people were socially shunned and legally unprotected against invidious discrimination in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation under our State’s Law Against Discrimination.  The notion of same-sex couples and their children constituting a ‘familial relationship’ worthy of legal recognition was considered by a significant number of our fellow citizens as socially and morally repugnant and legally absurd.  The overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens now unequivocally reject this shameful, morally untenable bigotry; our laws, both legislatively and through judicial decisions, now recognize and protect the rights of LGBTQ people to equal dignity and treatment under law.”

The court emphasized that “what constitutes a ‘familial relationship’ is perforce a fact-sensitive analysis, driven by evolving social and moral forces,” so to rely on the understandings prevailing when Portee was decided was inappropriate, and the trial judge should have denied the defendants’ motion and given Benning an opportunity to provide more evidence about the nature of the relationship. The court suggested that Benning would have been “better served” had her counsel introduced evidence in opposition to the defendants’ motion “with certifications from individuals who knew and saw these two women interact with these children on a day-to-day basis,” as this could have “assisted the motion judge in his decision.”

Benning was represented on appeal by Robin Kay Lord, with Clifford D. Bidlingmaier III, of Kardos, Rickles, Hand & Bidlingmaier, assisting on the brief. The case attracted amicus participation in briefing and arguing the appeal from Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s state LGBT rights organization, represented by Jennifer L. Hamilton, and from the New Jersey State Bar Association, whose out gay former president Tom Prol also presented a brief and oral argument.

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Trump Administration Suffers More Setbacks in Defending Transgender Military Ban

Two federal district judges have issued new rulings in lawsuits challenging the Trump Administration’s ban on military service by transgender individuals, mainly adverse to the government.  [Addendum:  After this was drafted, we received a decision from a federal magistrate judge in Baltimore on discovery issues in one of the other challenged to the transgender ban.  Our summary appears at the end of this posting.]

After the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit refused to lift Seattle U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman’s preliminary injunction against the policy on July 18, she issued a new ruling on July 27 granting the plaintiffs’ motion to compel discovery and denying the government’s motion for a protective order that would shield President Trump from having to respond to any discovery requests.  The Justice Department immediately announced that it would appeal this ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Judge Pechman had previously denied motions for summary judgment in the case, having found that there was a need for discovery before such a ruling could take place.

On August 6, D.C. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, who had issued the first preliminary injunction against the policy last year, issued two decisions. In one, she rejected the government’s request to vacate her preliminary injunction as moot, finding that the plaintiffs have standing to challenge the “new” policy described by Defense Secretary James Mattis in his February 2018 memo to the President, and agreeing with Judge Pechman that the “new” policy is not essentially different from the “old” one announced by President Trump a year ago. However, Judge Kollar-Kotelly granted a motion by the government to dismiss President Trump as an individual named defendant in the case.

Two other lawsuits challenging the policy are pending in federal district courts in Riverside, California, and Baltimore, Maryland. In both cases, the judges have received motions from the parties that are awaiting decision, similar to those filed with Judges Pechman and Kollar-Kotelly.

To recap for those coming late to this story, Trump tweeted a ban on transgender military service on July 26, 2017, and issued a memorandum a month later describing the policy in slightly more detail, charging Secretary Mattis to propose a plan for implementation by late February, 2018, with the goal of implementing the policy later in March. Trump’s memo specified that Mattis’s previous directive to allow transgender applicants to join the military, which had been announced at the end of June 2017 to go into effect on January 1, 2018, was to be indefinitely delayed, as Trump’s policy would not allow transgender people to enlist.  Mattis announced that no action would be taken against now-serving transgender personnel pending the implementation of the policy in March 2018, but there were reports of transgender personnel suffering cancellations of promotions and desire assignments and of planned medical procedures after the policy was announced.

Mattis’s memo to the president in February proposed some modifications to the policy that had been announced in Trump’s August memorandum. Transgender personnel who were already serving and had transitioned and were “stable” in their preferred gender would be allowed to continue serving, based on a determination that the investment in their training outweighed whatever “risk” they posed to the readiness of the military.  Furthermore, transgender individuals who had not transitioned or been diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” would be allowed to enlist and serve, provided they refrained from transitioning and served in the sex identified at birth.  Otherwise, those diagnosed with “gender dysphoria” would be prohibited from enlisting or serving, and those who could not comply with these requirements would be discharged.  The proposal was based on a “finding” by a rigged special committee apparently dominated by committed opponents of transgendered service that allowing transgender people to serve in the military was harmful to the operational efficiency of the service – a finding based on no factual evidence and oblivious to the fact that transgender people had been serving openly without any problems since the Obama Administration lifted the prior ban at the end of June 2016.

Four lawsuits had been filed in response to the summer 2017 policy announcement, and in a matter of months the four district courts had issued preliminary injunctions, having found it likely that the plaintiffs would prevail on their argument that the policy violates the Equal Protection requirements of the 5th Amendment of the Bill of Rights. As compelled by the preliminary injunctions, the Defense Department allowed transgender people to submit applications to enlist beginning January 1, 2018, after losing a last-ditch court battle to continue the enlistment ban, but there were reports that the applications they received were getting very slow processing, and all indications are that few have been accepted for service.

Trump responded to Mattis’s February 2018 memo by “withdrawing” his prior memo and tweet, and authorizing Mattis to adopt the implementation plan he was recommending by late March. The Justice Department then filed motions in all the lawsuits seeking to lift the preliminary injunctions. Their argument was, in part, that the “new” policy was sufficiently different from the one that had been “withdrawn” as to moot the lawsuits. They further contended that the plaintiffs who were already serving and would be allowed to continue serving under the “new” policy no longer had standing to challenge the policy in court.  The Department also argued that plaintiff’s attempts to conduct discovery in the case should be put on hold until there was a definitive appellate ruling on their motion to lift the preliminary injunctions.

On April 13, Judge Pechman rejected the government’s motion to lift the preliminary injunction, having already ordered that discovery proceed. In his initial tweet, Trump had claimed that he had consulted with generals and other experts before adopting the policy, but the identities of these people were not revealed, and the government has stonewalled against any attempt to discover their identities or any internal executive branch documents that might have been generated on this issue, making generalized claims of executive privilege.  Similarly, the February memorandum released under Mattis’s name did not identify any of the individuals responsible for its composition, and naturally the plaintiffs are also seeking to discover who was involved in putting it together and what information they purported to rely upon.

Judge Pechman’s July 27 order to compel discovery specified the materials sought by the plaintiffs, and pointed out that under federal evidentiary rules, any claim of privilege against disclosure is subject to evaluation by the court. “The deliberative privilege is not absolute,” she wrote.  “Several courts have recognized that the privilege does not apply in cases involving claims of governmental misconduct or where the government’s intent is at issue.”

The question, under 9th Circuit precedents, is “whether plaintiffs’ need for the materials and the need for accurate fact-finding override the government’s interest in non-disclosure.  In making this determination, relevant factors include: (1) the relevance of the evidence; (2) the availability of other evidence; (3) the government’s role in the litigation; and (4) the extent to which disclosure would hinder frank and independent discussion regarding contemplated policies and decisions.”  There is a formal process for invoking privilege, which requires the government to “provide precise and certain reasons for preserving the confidentiality of designated material.”

In this case, Judge Pechman had previously determined that discrimination because of gender identity involves a “suspect classification” for purposes of equal protection requirements, which means the government has the burden of proving that there is a compelling justification for the discrimination. In this case, however, the government has articulated only a generalized judgment that service by transgender individuals is too “risky” based on no facts whatsoever.  Judge Pechman concluded in granting the plaintiffs’ discovery motion that “the deliberative process privilege does not apply in this case.”

The government had moved for a protective order “precluding discovery directed at President Trump.” While conceding that Trump has “not provided substantive responses or produced a privilege log” listing specifically what information has to be protected against disclosure, the government contended that “because the requested discovery raises ‘separation of powers concerns,’ Plaintiffs must exhaust discovery ‘from sources other than the President and his immediate White House advisors and staff’ before he is required to formally invoke the privilege.”

Judge Pechman noted that so far the government has refused to provide any information about how the policy decision was made or developed, and has failed to identify the specific documents and other information for which it claims privilege. In a footnote, she commented, “The Court notes that Defendants have steadfastly refused to identify even one general or military official President Trump consulted before announcing the ban.”  Thus, she found, there was no basis for the court to evaluate “whether the privilege applies and if so, whether Plaintiffs have established a showing of need sufficient to overcome it.”  Indeed, she concluded in a prior decision, as far as the record stands, it looks as if Trump made the whole thing up himself without relying on any military expertise. Thus, she has preliminarily rejected the government’s contention that the policy would enjoy the deference normally extended to military policies adopted based on the specialized training and expertise of the military policy makers.

Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s August 6 ruling focused on an issue that Judge Pechman had previously decided: whether the plaintiffs had standing to continue challenging the policy after Mattis’s memo supplanted the “withdrawn” earlier policy announcements. She had little trouble in determining that all the plaintiffs, even those who are currently-serving transgender personnel who would be allowed to consider serving under the “new” policy, still had standing, which requires a finding that implementing the policy would cause them harm.

“The Court rejects Defendants’ argument that Plaintiffs no longer have standing because they are not harmed by the Mattis Implementation Plan,” she wrote, stating that “the effect of that plan would be that individuals who require or have undergone gender transition would be absolutely disqualified from military service, individuals with a history or diagnosis of gender dysphoria would be largely disqualified from military service, and, to the extent that there are any individuals who identify as ‘transgender’ but do not fall under the first two categories, they would be allowed to serve, but only ‘in their biological sex’ (which means that openly transgender persons would generally not be allowed to serve in conformance with their identity.)” Furthermore, those who have already transitioned and are now serving would be doing so under the stigma of having been labeled as “unfit” for military service and presenting an undue risk to military readiness, and would likely suffer prejudice in terms of their assignments and their treatment by fellow military personnel, as well as emotional harm.

“The Mattis Implementation Plan sends a blatantly stigmatizing message to all members of the military hierarchy that has a unique and damaging effect on a narrow and identifiable set of individuals, of which Plaintiffs are members,” she wrote. They would be serving “pursuant to an exception to a policy that explicitly marks them as unfit for service.  No other service members are so afflicted.  These Plaintiffs are denied equal treatment because they will be the only service members who are allowed to serve only based on a technicality; as an exception to a policy that generally paints them as unfit.”

She concluded that “because their stigmatic injury derives from this unequal treatment, it is sufficient to confer standing.” She pointed out that beyond stigmatization, the Implementation Plan “creates a substantial risk that Plaintiffs will suffer concrete harms to their careers in the near future.  There is a substantial risk that the plan will harm Plaintiffs’ career development in the form of reduced opportunities for assignments, promotion, training, and deployment.  These harms are an additional basis for Plaintiffs’ standing.”  She rejected the government’s contention that these harms were only “speculative.”

Furthermore, she rejected the claim that Trump’s “withdrawal” of his August 2017 memorandum and the substitution of the Mattis Implementation Plan made the existing lawsuits moot, agreeing with Judge Pechman that the “new” plan was merely a method of “implementing” the previously announced policy. She found that the Implementation Plan “prevents service by transgender individuals,” just as Trump had directed in August 2017, and the minor deviations from the complete categorical ban were not significant enough to make it substantially different.

Thus she refused to dissolve the preliminary injunction. She refrained from ruling on motions for summary judgment on the merits of the equal protection claim, because there are sharply contested facts in this case and no discovery has taken place, so it can’t be decided purely as a matter of law. The facts count here in court, even if they don’t seem to count in the White House or the Defense Department.

However, Judge Kollar-Kotelly granted the government’s motion to partially dissolve the injunction as it applies personally to Trump, and granted the motion to “dismiss the President himself as a party to this case. Throughout this lawsuit,” she wrote, “Plaintiffs ask this Court to enjoin a policy that represents an official, non-ministerial act of the President, and declare that policy unlawful.  Sound separation-of-power principles counsel the Court against granting these forms of relief against the President directly.”  Thus, she concluded, there was no reason to retain Trump as a defendant.  If the Plaintiffs prevail on the merits, an injunction aimed at the Defense Department’s leadership preventing the policy from taking effect will provide complete relief.

The Plaintiffs complained that removing Trump from the case as a defendant would undermine their attempt to discover the information necessary to make their case, since individuals who are parties to litigation are particularly susceptible to discovery requests. The judge wrote that “it would not be appropriate to retain the President as a party to this case simply because it will be more complicated to seek discovery from him if he is dismissed.  To the extent that there exists relevant and appropriate discovery related to the President, Plaintiffs will still be able to obtain that discovery despite the President not being a party to the case.”  And, she concluded, “Plaintiffs will be able to enforce their legal rights and obtain all relief sought in this case without the President as a party.”

The judge treated as moot the Defendants’ motion for a protective order shielding Trump from having to respond to discovery requests. “However,” she wrote, “the Court reiterates that dismissing the President as a party to this case does not mean that Plaintiffs are prevented from pursuing discovery related to the President.  The court understands that the parties dispute whether discovery related to the President which has been sought by Plaintiffs is precluded by the deliberative process or presidential communication privileges, and the Court makes no ruling on those disputes at this point. The Court will be issuing further opinions addressing other dispositive motions that have been filed in this case.  After all of those opinions have been issued, if necessary, the Court will give the parties further guidance on the resolution of the discovery requests in this case.”  In a footnote, Judge Kollar-Kotelly noted Judge Pechman’s July 27 discovery order, and that defendants were appealing it to the 9th Circuit.  The judge emphasized that the preliminary injunction remains in effect for all of the remaining defendants in the case, so the policy may not be implemented while the case continues.

The possibility that Trump will be ordered to submit to questioning under oath in at least one of these cases remains a reality, but any attempt by the Plaintiffs to do so would undoubtedly arouse spirited opposition from the Defense Department, officially based on claims of privilege, but realistically due to the likelihood that Trump would perjure himself under such questioning. Recall the historical precedent:  The House of Representatives voted to impeach President Clinton based, in part, on the charge that he committed perjury during questioning before a grand jury by the Special Counsel investigating his affair with Monica Lewinski.  Thus, at least in that case, the House considered presidential perjury to be an impeachable offense.

Plaintiffs in the Seattle case, Karnoski v. Trump (in which the president remains a defendant), are represented by Lambda Legal and pro bono attorneys from Kirkland & Ellis. Plaintiffs in the D.C. case, Jane Doe 2 v. Trump, are represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), and pro bono attorneys from Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP and Foley Hoag LLP.

Addendum:

On August 14, U.S. Magistrate Judge A. David Copperthite, to whom Baltimore U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis had referred discovery matters in Stone v. Trump, another one of the pending cases, issued a ruling granting in part the plaintiffs’ motion to compel discovery of deliberative materials regarding Trump’s July 2017 tweet, August 2017 memorandum, the “activities of the DoD’s so-called panel of experts and its working groups” who put together the memorandum ultimately submitted by Mattis to the President in February 2018, and deliberative materials regarding that Implementation Plan and the President’s March memorandum, “including any participation or interference in that process by anti-transgender activists and lobbyists.” However, noting that a motion is pending before Judge Garbis to dismiss Trump as a defendant in the case, Judge Copperthite declined to rule on the government’s request for a protective order that would shield Trump from having to respond to discovery requests directed to him, “pending the resolution of the motion to dismiss President Trump as a party.”  Cooperthite wrote that “no interrogatories or document requests will be directed to President Trump as a party, but may be directed to other parties pursuant to this Memorandum Opinion.  If the Motion to Dismiss is denied, the Court will revisit the issue of the protective order as to President Trump.”

Cooperthite faced a practical dilemma in dealing with the government’s requests to shield Trump from discovery. “On July 27, 2017, President Trump tweeted transgender persons would no longer be able to serve in the military and as for any deliberative process, simply stated this policy occurred after consulting with ‘my Generals and military experts.’  There is no evidence to support the concept that ‘my Generals and military experts’ would have the information Plaintiffs request.  There is no evidence provided to this Court that ‘my Generals and military experts’ are identified, in fact do exist, or that they would be included in document requests and interrogatories propounded to the Executive Branch, excluding the President.  By tweeting his decisions to the world, the President has, in fact narrowed the focus of Plaintiffs’ inquiries to the President himself.  The Presidential tweets put the President front and enter as the potential discriminating official.”  So there is a real question whether discovery that doesn’t include President Trump is at all meaningful, since the ultimate legal question in the litigation is the intent of the government in adopting the ban which is, at bottom, Trump’s intent.  On the other hand, discovery directed at President Trump raises serious questions about separation of powers and the traditional respect for the confidentiality of internal White House policy deliberations.

“So many factors are unknown at this juncture in the litigation,” wrote Copperthite. “It is unknown whether Plaintiffs can obtain the information necessary from the non-Presidential discovery to define the ‘intent’ of the government with respect to the transgender ban.  Defendants offer as an alternative, a stay of discovery with respect to the President, until the Motion to Dismiss the President as a party is decided.  If the President, as the discriminating official, tweeted his transgender ban sua sponte as alleged, this Court sees no alternative to obtaining the intent of the government other than denying the protective order with respect to President Trump.”  However, he wrote, precedents “instruct this Court to give deference to the executive branch because ‘occasions for constitutional confrontation between the two branches should be avoided whenever possible.’”  Thus, Copperthite decided to put off deciding the protective order issue until after Judge Garbis decides whether to dismiss Trump as a party, but for now will order the defendants only to comply with discovery requests directed to defendants other than Trump, Secretary Mattis and the Secretaries of the various military branches.

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Trump Administration Issues Directive Authorizing Federal Contractors to Discriminate Based on Religious Beliefs

Acting Director Craig E. Leen of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), an agency within the U.S. Department of Labor that is responsible for enforcing the non-discrimination policies with which federal contractors must comply, issued a “Directive” to agency staff and federal contractors on August 10, construing three recent Supreme Court decisions and two Trump Executive Orders to allow contractors to discriminate in carrying out their contracts based on their religious beliefs.

The first decision cited by Leen is Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court’s June 4, 2018, ruling that reversed a lower court decision against a Denver-area baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. The Supreme Court did not rule in Masterpiece Cakeshop that businesses have a general right to deny services to gay couples based on the owners’ religious beliefs, however.  The Court finessed that issue, finding instead that the lower court’s ruling had to be reversed because the Court discerned evidence that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had exhibited overt hostility to religion in its treatment of baker Jack Phillips, who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couples based on his religious objections to same-sex marriage.  The evidence for this “hostility” boiled down to public statements by two commissioners, one of whom accurately summarized the legal rule that religious beliefs do not excuse a business from complying with state anti-discrimination law, and the other characterizing as “ugly” the use of religion to justify discrimination.  Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision for the Court emphasized that generally businesses do not enjoy a right to discriminate based on the owners’ religious beliefs, and that a “neutral forum” free of overt hostility to religion could enforce the anti-discrimination laws against a religious objector.

Kennedy’s ruling also contended that Phillips could have believed he was entitled to decline the business because, at the time, same-sex marriages were not allowed or recognized in Colorado, and that the Commission had evinced hostility to religion by dismissing charges brought by a man who was turned down by several bakers who refused his request to make cakes decorated with religiously-based anti-gay scriptural quotes and slogans. The Court’s majority apparently believed the Commission was insufficiently evenhanded in dealing with cases involving religious views.

But Leen’s directive, consistent with two Trump Executive Orders and a Memorandum issued last fall by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, reorients the issue as “discrimination” against religious individuals when they are required to comply with non-discrimination requirements that conflict with their religious beliefs. “Recent court decisions have addressed the broad freedoms and anti-discrimination protections that must be afforded religion-exercising organizations and individuals under the United States Constitution and federal law,” he wrote, painting individuals and businesses who want their religious beliefs to take priority over any contrary legal obligations as “victims.”

Twisting recent Supreme Court opinions to support this assertion, Leen summarized Masterpiece Cakeshop as holding that “the government violates the Free Exercise clause when its decisions are based on hostility to religion or a religious viewpoint.” He summarized Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, In., v. Comer (2017), in which the Court held that a state could not categorically disqualify religious organizations from receiving state funds for non-religious purposes, as holding that the “government violates the Free Exercise clause when it conditions a generally available public benefit on an entity’s giving up its religious character, unless that condition withstands the strictest scrutiny.”  That case involved the state’s denial of funds to a religious school for repaving its playground, based on a state constitutional provision against providing taxpayer money to religious institutions.  Finally, Leen summarized the Supreme Court’s notorious Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling (2014), a 5-4 decision, as holding that “the Religious Freedom Restoration Act applies to federal regulation of the activities of for-profit closely held corporations.”   That case involved a demand by a business corporation owned by a small group of devout Catholics that they should not have to provide contraception coverage for their employees as required by regulations under the Affordable Care Act.  Very few federal contractors subject to federal anti-discrimination rules, which apply only to substantial federal contracts, are “closely held corporations,” so that characterization of RFRA does not seem particularly applicable to the cases where this Directive is likely to be implicated.

Leen also cited Trump’s Executive Order 13831, which states, “The executive branch wants faith-based and community organizations, to the fullest opportunity permitted by law, to compete on a level playing field for grants, contracts, programs and other Federal funding opportunities,” and Trump’s Executive Order 13798, which says, “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom. The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government. . .  Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government.”  Sessions’ memorandum ran with these directives, asserting that the government should generally refrain from enforcing federal laws against people and businesses that have religious objections to complying with them.

The Directive instructs the OFCCP staff and notifies federal contractors that, in essence, they can discriminate in employing people or providing services under federal contracts if they are doing so based on their religious beliefs. The Supreme Court arguably opened the door to this kind of thinking in the Hobby Lobby and Trinity Lutheran cases, but it is rather a stretch to cite Masterpiece Cakeshop for this purpose, in light of Justice Kennedy’s invocation of Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, a 1968 case that held that a southern barbecue restaurant chain could not refuse to serve black customers based on the owner’s religious belief in racial segregation, as well as Employment Division v. Smith, a 1990 case that held that people do not enjoy a Free Exercise right to refuse to comply with state laws of general application that are on their face neutral with respect to religion.

Writing for the Court in Employment Division, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that allowing individuals to claim exemptions from the law based on their individual religious beliefs unless the government could prove that it had a compelling interest was not required by the First Amendment. “Any society adopting such a system would be courting anarchy, but that danger increases in direct proportion to the society’s diversity of religious beliefs, and its determination to coerce or suppress none of them,” he wrote.  Although the Court’s holding was unanimous in that case, four justices concurred in an opinion arguing that Scalia had gone too far in contending, for a majority of the Court, that there was no need for the government to show there was an important government interest that justified burdening an individual’s free exercise of religion – in that case, a Native American who was denied unemployment benefits when he was fired after he flunked the employer’s drug test due to his ritual use of peyote.

Enforcing religiously-neutral anti-discrimination rules is not “hostility to religion” by the government. It is undertaken to prevent categorical discrimination against applicants and employees or those seeking government-funded benefits or services, because of their personal characteristics, such as race, national origin, sex or sexual orientation.  Notably, the federal laws and regulations that OFCCP is supposed to enforce do not apply to government contractors that are religious corporations or associations or religious educational institutions, “with respect to the employment of individuals of a particular religion to perform work connected with the carrying on by such corporation, association, educational institution, or society of its activities.”

This “Directive” is not a regulation adopted in accordance with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act, and Justice Alito’s opinion for the Court in Hobby Lobby, responding to concerns raised by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissenting opinion, denied that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act could be invoked as a defense in an employment discrimination case. How this will all play out if OFCCP refuses to hold contractors to their non-discrimination requirements in situations involving LGBT victims of religiously-motivated discrimination is yet to be seen, but the portents are not good in light of Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, where, if confirmed, he would join the conservative majority in place of Justice Kennedy.  It is also worth noting that in his concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, implied that the Court should reconsider its holding in Employment Division v. Smith.

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Iowa Judge Strikes Down Medicaid Ban on Sex Reassignment Surgery

An Iowa trial judge ruled on June 6 that a state regulation prohibiting Medicaid coverage for sex reassignment surgery violates the state’s Civil Rights Act as well as the equal protection requirement of the state’s Constitution. Ruling on appeals by two transgender women who were denied preclearance for the procedures, Polk County District Judge Arthur E. Gamble rejected the state’s argument that the public accommodations law is inapplicable.

Iowa has a rather unusual history with this issue. Back in the 1970s, a transgender woman appealed a denial of benefits for sex reassignment surgery to federal court, winning a ruling from the district court and, in 1980, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that under the federal Medicaid statute, as then written, such surgery was covered under a general category of medically necessary in-patient hospital services.  The federal Medicaid program subsequently adopted policy statements disavowing the 8th Circuit’s approach, purporting to relieve state Medicaid programs from any obligation to cover sex reassignment procedures.  The federal agency backed away from that position during the Obama Administration, taking a neutral stance on what states might cover, although the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits sex discrimination by health care providers, might be construed to require such coverage.  But the Trump Administration now take the position, contrary to the Obama Administration, that gender identity discrimination is not covered under sex discrimination.

In 1991, the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS), ruling on a similar coverage claim, held that the language of the state’s Medicaid regulations required coverage. This prompted the state to take steps to change the regulatory language.  In 1995, relying on a report prepared by the Iowa Foundation for Medical Care, a non-profit that studies and generates reports on health care policy issues, DHS adopted new regulatory language, explicitly excluding from coverage “procedures related to transsexualism, hermaphroditism, gender identity disorders, or body dysmorphic disorders.”  Also excluded were “breast augmentation mammoplasty, surgical insertion of prosthetic testicles, penile implant procedures, and surgeries for the purpose of sex reassignment.”  This was included with a general ban on cosmetic procedures “performed primarily for psychological reasons or as a result of the aging process.”  The position of DHS in 1995, reiterated in this lawsuit, is that gender identity is entirely a psychological issue.

Although the 1995 Regulation has been reviewed by the agency numerous times since then, it has never been altered to take account of the changing medical consensus on gender identity and the role of sex reassignment procedures in treating gender dysphoria.

This is where the state fell down in the appeals filed by Eerieanna Good and Carol Beal from the denial of pre-clearance for their procedures. Their attorneys, Rita Bettis and Seth Horvath, retained the services of a distinguished expert, Dr. Randi Ettner, an author of several books on gender identity issues who has done a fair amount of public speaking and television appearances, who testified in detail about the current medical consensus about the nature of gender identity and appropriate health care for those diagnosed with gender dysphoria.  The current consensus goes beyond psychology to invoke fetal development, hormones, genes, and a biological basis for gender identity as a deeply rooted trait that is largely impervious to change, and these concepts are reflected in more up-to-date standard medical reference sources.

DHS did not produce an expert witness, instead resting on that quarter-century old Iowa Foundation report, which was mired in thinking already verging on obsolescence at the time, labeling “transsexualism” as purely a psychological issue and sex reassignment as essentially cosmetic.

Judge Gamble was not convinced by the state’s argument, finding Dr. Ettner’s testimony convincing and consistent with the medical literature. Gender identity issues are about more than psychology, the state agency has failed to keep up with the times, and the beliefs on which it based its 1995 regulation no longer enjoy professional acceptance in the field.  These findings clearly supported Judge Gamble’s conclusion that the Regulation is vulnerable to attack.

The state tried to argue that the Iowa Civil Rights Act, which was amended several years ago to add “gender identity” to the list of forbidden grounds of discrimination in public accommodations, did not apply. Medicaid, argued the state, is not a “public accommodation.”  Judge Gamble decided the state was mischaracterizing the issue.  Medicaid is a service, overseen and provided in Iowa through contracts with private managed care organizations (MCOs) by the DHS. The DHS, as a “unit of government,” is clearly a “public accommodation” within the meaning of the law, as are the MCOs that administer the program.

When the doctors for Good and Beal applied for pre-clearance to perform the medical procedures and were turned down, the MCOs relied on the DHS regulation, not engaging in any individualized evaluation of the claims. Similarly, when Good and Beal filed internal appeals, the DHS itself denied their appeals without any individualized analysis, merely invoking the old regulation. Thus, by refusing to authorize the procedures under Medicaid, the DHS, a public accommodation, was denying a service to Good and Beal.  And the court concluded that this denial was because of their gender identity, taking note of how the Regulation explicitly targeted transgender people for discrimination.

The plaintiffs had also claimed sex discrimination, but Judge Gamble found that under an old state supreme court decision that has never been overruled, he was precluded as a state trial judge from treating a gender identity discrimination claim as a sex discrimination claim under state law, although he acknowledged that many federal courts of appeals have now agreed with the argument that gender identity claims are covered by laws banning sex discrimination.

Turning to the constitutional challenge, Judge Gamble had to determine the level of judicial scrutiny to be applied to gender identity discrimination by a state agency, a question of first impression under the Iowa Constitution. He looked to the Iowa Supreme Court’s historic decision Varnum v. Brien from 2009, in which the Iowa Supreme Court became the first state high court in the nation to rule by unanimous vote that same-sex couples are entitled to marry.  In that case, the court had to determine the level of judicial scrutiny for a claim that the marriage laws unconstitutionally discriminated against gay people, and concluded that such discrimination was subject to heightened scrutiny, placing a significant burden of objective justification on the state.

Gamble found many parallels to the analysis of sexual orientation and gender identity claims, and concluded that heightened scrutiny should apply, having identified transgender people as a “quasi-suspect class.” The state had utterly failed to meet its burden of proof here, resting on outmoded misunderstanding of gender identity and failing to counter the plaintiffs’ expert testimony.  Hedging his bets in case of an appeal, Judge Gamble also evaluated the policy under the less demanding rational basis test, but the state fared no better, as he found that the plaintiffs “negated every reasonable basis for the classification that might support disparate treatment.  The Regulation’s exclusion of surgical treatment for Gender Dysphoria does not pass under rational basis review,” concluded Gamble, who went on to agree with the plaintiffs that continuing to enforce the Regulation violated the state’s Administrative Procedure Act, as being an “arbitrary or capricious” administrative action, depriving them of equal rights.

“While the Court understands that DHS is in some respect obligated to enforce the administrative rules as previously adopted,” Gamble wrote, “it also owes an obligation to ensure those rules conform to the statutes like the [Iowa Civil Rights Act] and the Iowa Constitution which trump any prior administrative rule. DHS also has an obligation to keep up with the medical science.  DHS failed to do so when it denied coverage to Good and Beal for medically necessary gender affirming surgery.  This decision was made without regard to the law and facts.  The agency acted in the face of evidence upon which there is no room for difference of opinion among reasonable minds.  The exclusion of coverage was unreasonable arbitrary and capricious.”

Finally, Judge Gamble rejected DHS’s plea to limit the scope of his ruling by giving the agency time to develop a new regulation and not make the court’s order immediately binding, or to write a narrow order that would not have any broader effect. Gamble refused to be so limited, pointing out that the plaintiffs had already suffered undue delay and were entitled to the coverage mandated by law.  A total wipe-out of the state’s position.  The Iowa Attorney General’s office did not offer any comment in the immediate aftermath of the ruling, which could be appealed.

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Manhattan Appeals Court Revives Kelly Gunn’s Custody Lawsuit Against Circe Hamilton

A five-judge panel of the New York State Appellate Division, First Department, based in Manhattan, has revived a lawsuit by Kelly Gunn, who is seeking joint custody of a child adopted by her former partner, Circe Hamilton. New York Supreme Court Justice Frank Nervo had dismissed the lawsuit on April 13, 2017, finding that despite her close relationship with the child, Gunn was not a “parent” under New York’s Domestic Relations Law, so lacked “standing” to sue for custody or visitation.  But the appellate court unanimously ruled on June 26, 2018, in an opinion by Justice Judith J. Gische, that Gunn should have another chance to call upon the equitable powers of the court to recognize her relationship with the child.  In re K.G. v. C.H., 2018 WL 3118937, 2018 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 4617, N.Y. Slip Op 04683.

This is just the latest of a series of opinions dating back more than a quarter century, grappling with the question of when the courts should recognize parental standing where an unmarried same-sex couple was raising a child together, broke up, and the birth or adoptive parent resisted their former partner’s attempt to continue in a parental role with the child.

In 1991, the highest New York court’s answer to the question was “never,” in the case of Alison D. v. Virginia M. The Court of Appeals said then that only a person related to the child by blood or adoption could have standing to seek custody or court-ordered visitation, giving a narrow interpretation to the word “parent” as used in the statute, which did not itself define the term.  Then-Chief Judge Judith Kaye wrote a dissent that was widely quoted by courts in other states as they adopted legal theories to allow these “second parents” to sue for custody or visitation rights.  Judge Kaye argued that the court’s decision failed to take account of the reality of non-traditional families, including those headed by LGBT couples, and would ultimately be harmful to the best interests the children, which courts would be precluded from considering if “second parents” did not have standing to bring the cases.

But the New York appellate courts stood firmly opposed to allowing such lawsuits until August 2016, when the Court of Appeals modified its position in the case of Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A. C. C. In that case, the court focused on a written agreement that two women made to jointly undertake the creation of a new child through donor insemination for them to raise together, and found that where the couple had gone through with their agreement, had the child, and raised it together for some time before splitting up, it was appropriate to allow the second parent to seek custody or visitation so that a court could determine whether it was in the child’s best interest to continue the second parent’s relationship with the child.

The court’s opinion in Brooke S.B., written by the late Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam, was narrow and cautious, announcing a ruling based on the facts of that case, and leaving to later development other possible theories for second parents to use. In one case decided shortly after, the court accepted a “judicial estoppel” theory, where the birth mother had sued her former partner for child support, alleging that she had a parental obligation.  When the former partner than sued to assert parental rights, the Court of Appeals said that the birth mother could not deny her former partner’s parental status, which would be inconsistent with her position in the earlier case, even though the parties had not made a formal agreement like the one in Brooke S.B..

Kelly Gunn and Circe Hamilton, who had been together since 2004, agreed in 2007 that they would undertake an international adoption and raise a child together as a family. The plan was that Hamilton would adopt a child overseas, bring the child home to New York, and that Gunn would then complete a “second parent” adoption, a procedure which has been possible in New York for many years.  However, these plans had not come to fruition when the women’s romantic relationship ended in December 2009.

In 2010, Gunn and Hamilton signed a separation agreement negotiated with the assistance of lawyers, formally ending their cohabitation and romantic relationship, and dividing up their assets (including real property). Despite this breakup, Hamilton continued to deal with adoption agencies and eventually did adopt a child overseas with Gunn’s encouragement in the summer of 2011.  Gunn was in Europe on business at the time and met Hamilton and the child in London, from where they flew back to New York.  Although the women’s romantic relationship had ended, they had remained friends, and there is an extensive record of communications between them, which the trial court considered in reaching a determination that the 2007 agreement had not survived the breakup of the relationship.

Despite the breakup, Gunn was eager to be involved in the child’s life, and Hamilton accommodated her by allowing frequent contact, resulting in Gunn forming an attachment to the child. In August 2016, around the time that the Court of Appeals had overruled the Alison D. decision in the Brooke S.B. case, Hamilton, a British native, announced that she was planning to move back to England with the child and Gunn quickly sprang into action, filing this lawsuit and seeking a temporary order requiring Hamilton to remain in New York with the child while the case was litigated.  Gunn claimed that under the Brooke S.B. case, she had “standing” to seek joint custody and visitation rights because of the 2007 agreement the women had made.

Justice Nervo did not dismiss the case outright, and there was a temporary order, but after a lengthy trial he determined that the 2007 agreement had not survived the women’s breakup, and that by the time Hamilton adopted the child, she was acting on her own. The judge concluded that Gunn was a friend who had formed an attachment with the child, but not a “parent” within the meaning of the Domestic Relations Law, so she did not have standing to seek any parental rights.

The decision proved controversial from the moment it was announced. Despite the narrowness of the Court of Appeals ruling in Brooke S.B., that court had acknowledged the possibility that in a future case it might be appropriate to recognize parental standing in the absence of an express agreement, using a legal doctrine called “equitable estoppel,” which has been recognized by courts in several other states in lesbian parent custody disputes.  Gunn argued that this was such an appropriate case.  However, Justice Nervo, having concluded that Gunn did not have standing under his interpretation of the Brooke S.B. decision, had ended the trial without letting Gunn present additional evidence that could be relevant to an equitable estoppel claim.

Writing for the Appellate Division, Judge Gisch found that this may be the kind of case where equitable estoppel is appropriate. Certainly, the Court of Appeals’ Brooke S.B. decision did not foreclose the possibility.  While agreeing with Justice Nervo that the facts supported a conclusion that the 2007 agreement had terminated together with the parties’ romantic relationship well over a year before Hamilton adopted the child, and thus the case did not come squarely within the holding of Brooke S.B., nonetheless the court held that both parties should have the opportunity to present evidence about whether this would be an appropriate case to apply equitable estoppel.

Equitable estoppel might be a basis for Gunn to have standing to sue, but an ultimate decision on the merits would require the court to determine what would be in the best interests of the child. As to that, the court said, the child’s voice was an indispensable component, and was so far conspicuous by its absence from this case.   It is usual to appoint a person – frequently a lawyer – as “guardian ad litem” to represent the interest of the child in a custody and visitation dispute when the child is deemed too young and immature to speak for him or herself.  In this case, the child was born in 2011, and so by the time a hearing will be held will be seven years old – perhaps old enough to speak for himself, but that is something for Justice Nervo to determine.

The trial court will have to decide whether this is a case where Gunn had assumed a sufficiently parental role toward the child, with the consent or at least the acquiescence of Hamilton, to give her “standing” to be considered a parent for purposes of a custody and visitation contest, and then whether, under all the circumstances, it would be in the best interest of the child for Gunn to continue playing a parental role in the child’s life with the court ordering Hamilton to allow this relationship to continue.

Gunn had asked to have the case assigned to a different judge, but the Appellate Division declined to do so, without explanation.

Gunn is represented by Robbie Kaplan and her law firm, Kaplan & Company, as well as lawyers from Morrison Cohen LLP and Chemtob Moss & Forman LLP. Hamilton is represented by lawyers from Cohen Rabin Stine Schumann LLP.  The LGBT Law Association Foundation of Greater New York submitted an amicus brief to the court, with pro bono assistance from Latham & Watkins LLP, not taking sides between the parties but discussing the possible routes open to the court in applying the Brooke S.B. case to this new situation.

 

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Federal Appeals Court Renders Decisive Win for Transgender Students in Pennsylvania

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued an extensive written opinion on June 18, explaining the decision it had announced on May 24 to reject a legal challenge by some students and parents to the Boyertown School District’s decision to let transgender students use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  The opinion, written by Circuit Judge Theodore McKee, is a total victory for the school district and its transgender students, upholding the trial court’s refusal to enjoin the District’s trans-friendly policies while the case is being litigated.  Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 16323, 2018 WL 3016864.

This lawsuit was originally filed in March 2017 by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Christian law firm that specializes in opposing policies protective of LGBT rights, representing some students at the Boyertown, Pennsylvania, schools, who objected to sharing facilities with transgender students. Some of the students’ parents or guardians are also plaintiffs in the case.  Citing an incident where one of the plaintiffs actually encountered a transgender student in a restroom, they claim that the District’s policy creates a “hostile environment” for the non-transgender students, violating their rights under Title IX, the Constitution, and the Pennsylvania common law right of privacy.

Title IX is a federal statute that provides that students at schools that receive federal financial assistance may not be deprived of equal educational opportunity on account of sex. In addition, the 14th Amendment has been interpreted to forbid sex discrimination by public institutions, as well as to protect the privacy rights of individual citizens from invasion by the government.  Pennsylvania’s common law recognizes a legal theory of unreasonable intrusion on the seclusion of another as a wrongful invasion of privacy.

The plaintiffs in this case argue that their equality and privacy rights were abridged by the School District’s policy allowing transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity. The District undertook renovations of restroom and locker room facilities to increase individual privacy, and  has provided several single-user restrooms at the high school to accommodate any students who might feel uncomfortable using shared facilities to relieve themselves or change clothes.

U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith issued a ruling last August denying a preliminary injunction that the plaintiffs requested to block the school’s policy while the case was litigated. Judge Smith found that the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claim, and that granting the injunction would cause more harm to transgender students than any benefit to the plaintiffs.

McKee began his analysis by discussing the plaintiffs’ constitutional privacy claim. He acknowledged past cases holding that “a person has a constitutionally protected privacy interest in his or her partially clothed body,” but, he wrote, “the constitutional right to privacy is not absolute.  It must be weighed against important competing governmental interests.  Only unjustified invasions of privacy by the government are actionable.”  In this case, District Judge Smith had found that the Boyertown School District’s policy served “a compelling state interest in not discriminating against transgender students,” and that the policy was “narrowly tailored to that interest.”  The 3rd Circuit panel agreed with this conclusion.

The court found that “transgender students face extraordinary social, psychological, and medical risks and the School District clearly had a compelling state interest in shielding them from discrimination.” The court described expert testimony about the “substantial clinical distress” students could suffer as a result of gender dysphoria, which “is particularly high among children and may intensify during puberty.  The Supreme Court has regularly held that the state has a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors,” McKee continued.  “When transgender students face discrimination in schools, the risk to their wellbeing cannot be overstated – indeed, it can be life threatening.  This record clearly supports the District Court’s conclusion that the School District had a compelling state interest in protecting transgender students from discrimination.”

The court also observed that the challenged policy “fosters an environment of inclusivity, acceptance, and tolerance,” and specifically noted the amicus brief filed by the National Education Association, explaining how “these values serve an important educational function for both transgender and cisgender students.” Thus, the policy benefits not only transgender students but “it benefits all students by promoting acceptance.”

The court also pointed out that the District had gone out of its way to accommodate the privacy concerns of cisgender students by renovating the restrooms and locker rooms to enhance privacy and by making single-user restrooms available. “To the extent that the appellants’ claim for relief arises from the embarrassment and surprise they felt after seeing a transgender student in a particular space,” wrote McKee, “they are actually complaining about the implementation of the policy and the lack of pre-implementation communication.  That is an administrative issue, not a constitutional one.”

Thus, the court concluded, even if the policy is subject to “strict scrutiny” because it may involve a fundamental privacy right, it survives such scrutiny because of the compelling state interest involved and the way the District went about implementing it. The court observed that requiring the transgender students to use the single-sex facilities would not satisfy the state’s compelling interest, but would actually “significantly undermine it” since, as the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals stated last year in the case of transgender high school student Ash Whitaker, “a school district’s policy that required a transgender student to use single-user facilities ‘actually invited more scrutiny and attention from his peers.’”  McKee observed that “adopting the appellants’ position would very publicly brand all transgender students with a scarlet ‘T,’ and they should not have to endure that as a price of attending their public school.”

Furthermore, the court pointed out, the District’s policy “does not force any cisgender student to disrobe in the presence of any student – cisgender or transgender,” since the District has provided facilities “for any student who does not feel comfortable being in the confines of a communal restroom or locker room.” The renovation included “privacy stalls” and single-user facilities “so that any student who is uneasy undressing or using a restroom in the presence of others can take steps to avoid contact.”

But, said the court, it had never recognized an expansive constitutional right of privacy to the extent demanded by the plaintiffs in this case, and “no court has ever done so.” “School locker rooms and restrooms are spaces where it is not only common to encounter others in various stages of undress, it is expected.” Even the Supreme Court has commented that “public school locker rooms are not notable for the privacy they afford.”  So the court was unpersuaded that the plaintiffs’ demand in this case had any support in constitutional privacy law.

The 3rd Circuit panel also endorsed Judge Smith’s conclusion that there was no Title IX violation here.  As Smith found, “the School District’s policy treated all students equally and therefore did not discriminate on the basis of sex.”  Judge Smith had also found that the factual allegations did not rise to the level of a “hostile environment” claim, and the 3rd Circuit panel agreed with him.

Judge McKee pointed out that the Title IX regulations upon which plaintiff was relying do not mandate that schools provide “separate privacy facilities for the sexes,” but rather state permissively that providing separate facilities for male and female students will not be considered a violation of Title IX provided the facilities are equal. Furthermore, in order to find a hostile environment, the court would need evidence of “sexual harassment that is so severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive and that ‘so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience that he or she is effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.’”  The plaintiffs’ allegations in this case came nowhere near meeting that standard.

Furthermore, the denial of equal access must be based on sex to violate Title IX. “The appellants have not provided any authority to suggest that a sex-neutral policy can give rise to a Title IX claim,” wrote Judge McKee.  “Instead, they simply hypothesize that ‘harassment’ that targets both sexes equally would violate Title IX; that is simply not the law.” He observed that the School District’s policy “allows all students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity.  It does not discriminate based on sex, and therefore does not offend Title IX.”

The School District argued in response to the plaintiffs’ arguments that “barring transgender students from using privacy facilities that align with their gender identity would, itself, constitute discrimination under a sex-stereotyping theory in violation of Title IX.” This was the argument accepted by the 7th Circuit in Ash Whitaker’s lawsuit, and Gavin Grimm’s continuing lawsuit against the Gloucester County, Virginia, school district under Title IX, also advancing this theory, recently survived a motion to dismiss in the federal district court there.

But, wrote McKee, “We need not decide that very different issue here,” although he characterized the 7th Circuit’s decision in Whitaker’s case as “very persuasive” and said, “The analysis there supports the District Court’s conclusion that appellants were not likely to succeed on the merits of their Title IX claim.”

The court also agreed with Judge Smith’s conclusion that separate state tort law claims asserted by the plaintiffs were unlikely to be successful, having found that “the mere presence of a transgender individual in a bathroom or locker room is not the type of conduct that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person,” which is the standard for the tort of “intrusion upon seclusion” in Pennsylvania. The court also approved Smith’s finding that denying the preliminary injunction would not cause irreparable harm to the plaintiffs, as the District has taken reasonable steps to protect their privacy.

Thus, the District’s trans-supportive policy will remain in effect while this case is litigated. The likely next step, if ADF does not slink away in defeat, would be to litigate motions for summary judgment if the parties agree that there is no need for a trial over disputed facts.  However, ADF is likely to sharply contest the facts, so it may be that an actual trial is needed to resolve this case.

Levin Legal Group of Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, represents the School District, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the ACLU’s national LGBT Rights Project, with volunteer attorneys from the law firm Cozen O’Connor, represent the Pennsylvania Youth Congress Foundation, which intervened in the case to protect the interests of transgender students in the Boyertown District.

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Kennedy Retirement from Supreme Court May Doom LGBT Rights Agenda

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s announcement on June 27 that he would retire from active service on the U.S. Supreme Court as of July 31, 2018, opening up a vacancy for President Donald J. Trump to fill with the assistance of the bare majority of Republican United States Senators, portends a serious setback for LGBT rights in the years ahead. Kennedy cast a crucial vote and wrote powerfully emotional opinions to establish the dignity of LGBT people under the Constitution’s 5th and 14th Amendments.  Justice Kennedy will be remembered as the author of four major Supreme Court opinions that worked a revolution in United States constitutional law concerning the rights of sexual minorities.

Before his opinion for the Court in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, was announced on May 20, 1996, the Court had never ruled in favor of gay litigants in an Equal Protection Case.   In Romer, the Court invalidated a Colorado constitutional amendment, adopted in a voter initiative that banned the state from protecting gay people from discrimination.  Kennedy condemned the measure as an attempt to render gay people as “strangers to the law,” and found it to be an obvious violation of equal protection, leading Justice Scalia to complain in dissent that the Court’s opinion was inconsistent with its ruling a decade earlier that sodomy laws were constitutional.

Before his opinion for the Court in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, was announced on June 26, 2003, the Court had never used the Due Process Clause to strike down an anti-gay law. In Lawrence, Kennedy wrote for five members of the Court that the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law, by making private consensual adult gay sex a crime, had unconstitutionally abridged the liberty of gay people.  (Justice O’Connor concurred in an opinion focused solely on the equal protection clause.)  This time, Justice Scalia’s dissent denounced the Court’s opinion as opening the path to same-sex marriage.

His opinions in United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), established a right to marriage equality for LGBT people in the United States, the most populous nation so far to allow same-sex couples to marry. In Windsor, Kennedy wrote for five members of the Court that the Defense of Marriage Act, a statute requiring the federal government to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages that were valid under state law, violated both the Due Process and Equal Protection requirements of the 5th Amendment, emphasizing the affront to the dignity of gay married couples.  In dissent, of course, Justice Scalia accused the Court of providing a framework for lower courts to strike down state bans on same-sex marriage.  Scalia’s dissent was prophetic, as just two years later the Court ruled in Obergefell that the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of Due Process and Equal Protection required the states to allow same-sex couples to marry and to recognize such marriages for all legal purposes.  In the intervening years, lower courts had cited and quoted from Kennedy’s Windsor opinion (and Scalia’s dissent) in finding bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.  Kennedy’s vote with the majority in the per curiam ruling in Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075 (2017), reinforced Obergefell’s holding that couples in same-sex marriages enjoyed the “full constellation” of rights associated with marriage, as did his vote in V.L. v. E.L., 136 S. Ct. 1017 (2016), affirming that states were obligated to extend full faith and credit to second-parent adoptions granted by the courts of other states.

Justice Kennedy also joined the majority in a concurring opinion in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, 561 U.S. 661 (2010), rejecting a 1st Amendment challenge to a public university law school’s refusal to extend official recognition to a student group that overtly discriminated against gay students.

When LGBT litigants lost Kennedy’s vote, however, they lost the Court. In his most recent LGBT-related decision, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 2018 WL 2465172, 2018 U.S. LEXIS 3386 (June 4, 2018), while reiterating his concern for the dignity of gay people to be able to participate without discrimination in the public marketplace, Kennedy could not bring himself to reject the religious free exercise claims of a Christian baker, and so engineered an “off ramp” by embracing a dubious argument that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission was so overtly hostile to the baker’s religious beliefs that he had been deprived of a “neutral forum” to decide his case.  Thus, Kennedy was able to assemble a 7-2 vote to overturn the Colorado Court of Appeals ruling in that case, without directly ruling on whether the baker’s religious objections would override the non-discrimination requirements of Colorado law, leading to oversimplified media headlines suggesting that the baker had a 1st Amendment right to refuse to make the cake.

Kennedy also joined the majority (without writing) in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000), a 5-4 ruling holding that the Boy Scouts had a 1st Amendment right to deny membership to an out gay Assistant Scoutmaster, based on BSA’s rights of free speech and expressive association. He was part of the unanimous Courts that rejected a constitutional challenge to the Solomon Amendment, a law denying federal money to schools that barred military recruiters (mainly because of the Defense Department’s anti-gay personnel policies), in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights, Inc., 547 U.S. 47 (2006), and that, reversing the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, held that a gay Irish-American group could be barred from marching in Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Hurley v. Irish American Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995).  However, in those cases all of the more liberal members of the Court joined in the unanimous opinions, so Kennedy’s vote did not make a difference to the outcome.

While Justice Kennedy’s majority opinions in the major LGBT rights cases were triumphs for LGBT rights, they were not viewed as unalloyed triumphs in the halls of legal academe. Commentators who agreed with the results were frequently harshly critical of Kennedy’s opinions in terms of their articulation of legal reasoning and doctrinal development.  The Romer decision left many scratching their heads, trying to figure out whether the Court had applied some sort of “heightened scrutiny” to the Colorado constitutional amendment, puzzled about the precedential meaning of the ruling for later LGBT-related equal protection challenges.  There was similar criticism of the opinions in Lawrence, Windsor, and Obergefell.  Kennedy failed to use the doctrinal terminology familiar to constitutional law scholars and students, such as “suspect classification,” “heightened scrutiny,” “compelling state interest” and the like, leaving doubt about the potential application of these rulings.  Indeed, three justices dissenting in Pavan v Smith in an opinion by Justice Gorsuch claimed that the Court’s Obergefell ruling had left undecided the question in Pavan – whether Arkansas had to list lesbian co-parents on birth certificates – and the Texas Supreme Court expressed similar doubts about the extent of Windsor and Obergefell in refusing to put an end to a dispute about whether the city of Houston had to extend employee benefits eligibility to the same-sex spouses of city employees.  While some courts, such as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, saw Kennedy’s opinions as extending protected class status to gay people for equal protection purposes, others insisted that those rulings had produced no such precedent.

Justice Kennedy’s retirement effective July 31, 2018, seemed to signal a likely retreat from LGBT rights leadership by the Supreme Court. Assuming that President Trump will nominate and the Republican majority in the Senate will confirm a justice with the ideological and doctrinal profiles of Neil Gorsuch or Samuel Alito, the crucial fifth vote to make a pro-LGBT majority would most likely be missing, although Supreme Court appointments are a tricky business.  In the past, some presidents have been astounded at the subsequent voting records of their appointees.  President Dwight Eisenhower called his appointment of William J. Brennan one of the worst mistakes of his presidency, as Brennan went on to be a leader of the Court’s left wing.  Had he lived long enough to see it, President John F. Kennedy might have been similarly disappointed by the rightward drift of Byron R. White, his nominee who wrote the blatantly homophobic decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), that upheld Georgia’s felony sodomy law, calling a claim to constitutional protection by gay people “at best facetious.”  President Richard Nixon was undoubtedly disappointed with the leftward drift of Harry Blackmun, author of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), the Court’s key abortion rights decision, and vigorous dissenter in Bowers v. Hardwick.  President Ronald Reagan appointed Anthony Kennedy assuming he would provide a vote to strike down abortion rights, but Kennedy was part of a moderate Republican coalition (joining with Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and David Souter) that joined with the remaining Democratic appointees to reaffirm those rights in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).  President George H. W. Bush’s appointment of Souter ended up being a massive disappointment to conservatives, as Souter frequently voted with the Democratic appointees and the leftward veering John Paul Stevens, who had been appointed by President Gerald Ford and ended up being much more liberal than expected.  Souter was so disillusioned by the Court’s 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), handing the presidency to George W. Bush after Albert Gore decisively won the national popular vote and may well have been entitled to the Florida electoral votes needed to put him over the top, that he retired from the Court prematurely.

In other words, the past records of Supreme Court nominees are not inevitably accurately predictive prologues to how they will vote on the Court over the long term. Supreme Court justices frequently serve for several decades (Kennedy’s service stretched over 30 years), and the looming constitutional issues at the time of their appointment are inevitably replaced by new, unanticipated issues over the course of their service.  Also, the Supreme Court is like no other court in the United States, in which the constraints of precedent faced by lower court judges are significantly loosened, since the Supreme Court can reverse its prior holdings, and in which theories and trends in constitutional and statutory interpretation evolve over time.  The examples of Brennan, Souter and Kennedy have caused the confirmation process to change drastically, and the possibility of an appointee turning out a total surprise appears diminished, but it is not entirely gone.  One can hope that a Trump appointee will not be totally predictable in the Alito/Gorsuch orbit, although that may be unduly optimistic when it comes to LGBT issues.  In his first full term on the Court, Justice Gorsuch has not cast 100 predictable votes. . .

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Supreme Court Orders “Further Consideration” by Washington State Courts in Wedding Flowers Case

On June 25, the Supreme Court finally acted on a petition for certiorari filed last summer in Arlene’s Flowers, Inc. v. State of Washington, No. 17-108, in which Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) sought review of the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling that unanimously affirmed the Benton County Superior Court’s decision that Arlene’s Flowers and its proprietor, Barronelle Stutzman, had violated the state’s Law Against Discrimination and its Consumer Protection Act by refusing to sell wedding flowers to a same-sex couple.  The Petition was docketed at the Supreme Court on July 14, 2017, after the Court had recently granted review in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. State of Colorado.  The Court did not place this Petition on the agenda for any of its certiorari conferences until after rendering its decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop on June 4, 2018.  Then on June 25, it granted the petition, vacated the lower court’s ruling, and sent the case back for “further consideration” in light of the Masterpiece ruling.

 

This case arose from an incident that occurred shortly after Washington began to issue same-sex marriage licenses as a result of the marriage equality litigation within the 9th Circuit.  Robert Ingersoll and Curt Freed, a same-sex couple planning their wedding, went to Arlene’s Flowers to order floral decorations for what they planned to be a big event.  Ingersoll had been a frequent customer of this business and had established a personal relationship with the proprietor, Barronelle Stutzman.  When he asked her to provide the flowers for his wedding, however, she told him that she could not design flowers for his wedding because of her relationship with Jesus Christ.  She gave him the names of three other florists, and claims he said he understood her decision and “they hugged before he left.”  Ingersoll and Freed decided to scale down their wedding plans as a result of this and evidently talked about their experience to others, generating news reports that spurred the state’s Attorney General to action.  Around the same time the state’s lawsuit was filed, Ingersoll and Freed, represented by the ACLU, filed their own suit, and the two cases were consolidated, resulting in State v. Arlene’s Flowers, 2015 WL 720213 (Wash. Super. Ct., Benton Co.), and State v. Arlene’s Flowers, 187 Wash. 2 804, 389 P.2d 543 (2017).  (Washington State allows direct action to enforce the statutes in question without requiring exhaustion of administrative remedies, and the Washington Supreme Court accepted Arlene’s Flowers’ petition for direct review, bypassing the state’s intermediate appellate court.) The state courts found that the defendant had violated the statutes, and that she was not entitled to any 1st Amendment defense.

Within days of the Masterpiece ruling, ADF had filed a supplementary brief in the Supreme Court on behalf of Arlene’s Flowers and Stutzman, urging the Court to grant certiorari, vacate the state court ruling, and remand for consideration in light of Masterpiece.  The Respondents (State of Washington and Ingersoll and Freed) quickly filed responding briefs, arguing that certiorari should be denied because there was nothing in the history of this case that suggested anything like the grounds on which Masterpiece had been decided.

In its supplementary brief, ADF mounted several arguments in support of its contention that Masterpiece could require a reversal in this case because of “hostility” to religion by the State of Washington.  First, ADF argued that the Attorney General’s action in filing suit against Barronelle Stutzman in both her professional and personal capacities, reacting to news reports and without the same-sex couple having filed their own discrimination claim, evinced hostility to religion.  Second, ADF argued that the trial court’s reliance on and quotation from a case cited by the Attorney General in which the court ruled against a retail store that refused on religious grounds to serve African-Americans was, in effect, comparing Barronelle to the “racist” owner of the store, further evincing “hostility” to her religion. Based on this, ADF argued, “the State, in short, has treated Barronelle with neither tolerance nor respect,” quoting Justice Kennedy’s phrase from Masterpiece.  ADF also pointed to the state’s failure to initiate litigation against a coffee-shop owner in Seattle who, according to a radio talk show, had “profanely berated and discriminated against Christian customers,” apparently seeking to draw an analogy to a situation described by Kennedy in Masterpiece, of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission dismissing charges against three bakers who had refused to bake anti-gay cakes in the wake of the Commission’s ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop.

The State of Washington and the ACLU quickly filed responsive briefs, disputing the accuracy and relevance of ADF’s supplementary brief. For one thing, unlike Masterpiece Cakeshop, Arlene’s Flowers did not raise any issued in its original Petition about “hostility to religion” by the state and, Respondents argued, could not now introduce a new issue into the case.  For another, they pointed out, a party to litigation citing a case that supports its legal position cannot be considered “hostility to religion.”  After all, Justice Kennedy cited a similar federal case involving a restaurant that refused to serve African-Americans in his opinion in Masterpiece to support the point that it is well established that there is no general free exercise exemption from complying with public accommodations laws.  This doesn’t show hostility to religion by the court.  Furthermore, the A.G.’s filing of a discrimination complaint, in itself, is no evidence of animus or hostility, but merely doing his job, and the A.G. “played no adjudicatory role in the process of deciding this case.”  What Masterpiece required was that the forum not be hostile religion, and the forum is the court, not the parties to the case.

Furthermore, the A.G.’s brief pointed out, there was doubt about the accuracy of the talk radio report cited by ADF, but notwithstanding that, even though nobody filed a discrimination claim against the coffee shop owner, the chair of the Washington Human Rights Commission “publicly announced that she would send a letter to the business owner explaining Washington law,” and the owner subsequently announced, unlike Barronelle Stutzman, that “he will no longer refuse service to the customers he initially turned away.” Contrast this with the situation in Masterpiece, where Justice Kennedy counted as evidence of hostility that the Colorado Commission had rejected discrimination claims against three bakers who declined to make anti-gay cakes while ruling against Jack Phillips for refusing to make a same-sex wedding cake.  (As Justice Breyer explained in his concurring opinion joined by Justice Kagan, there was no inconsistency here as the two situations were clearly distinguishable.)

In any rate, a strong argument can be made that there is no basis for order “further consideration” of Arlene’s Flowers in light of Masterpiece.  In the days following a Supreme Court decision, the Court usually moves quickly to dispose of petitions in other cases that had been “on hold” pending its ruling.  It is not uncommon in such “mopping up” situations to send cases back to the lower courts for a determination whether the Supreme Court decision would require a different result.  But it is also common to merely deny the petition if the lower court ruling is clearly consistent with the new Supreme Court decision.  In this case, the Court’s action may be reacting to ADF’s assertion in its supplementary brief that there is evidence of hostility to religion in the proceedings in the Washington courts, and to a common practice by the Court of sending cases back for reconsideration if any member of the Court is troubled about possible inconsistency.  On the other hand, it may signal some ambiguity about exactly what the Court was holding in Masterpiece, and a desire by the Court, ultimately, to consider the underlying legal questions on the merits without any complications involving the nature of the lower court proceedings.

The Supreme Court’s decision to vacate the Washington Supreme Court’s ruling is certainly cause for concern, since that ruling is totally consistent with what Justice Kennedy said about the free exercise and free speech arguments that ADF advanced in Masterpiece, and a careful reading of Kennedy’s opinion shows that the Court did not back away, at least overtly, from its prior precedents holding that there is not a free exercise exemption from complying with laws banning discrimination in public accommodations.  Time will tell whether a firm majority of the Court is actually ready to reassert that position on the merits in an appropriate case.  Meanwhile, opponents of religious exemptions can take some comfort from the actions by the Arizona Court of Appeals and the Oregon Supreme Court (refusing to review a court of appeals ruling in another wedding cake case) in the weeks following the Masterpiece rule.

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