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Unanimous Federal Appeals Court Rules Indiana Must List Lesbian Mothers on Birth Certificates

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled on January 17, 2020, in Henderson v. Box, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 1559, 2019 WL 255305, that the state of Indiana must recognize the same-sex spouses of women who give birth as mothers, who should be listed on the birth certificates for their children.  Judge Frank Easterbrook wrote the opinion for the court.

The timing of this appeal made the outcome unsurprising.  In June and December 2016, District Judge Tanya Walton Pratt issued rulings in this case, ultimately holding unconstitutional various Indiana statutes upon which the state relied in refusing to list the same-sex spouses on their children’s birth certificates.  See Henderson v. Adams, 209 F. Supp. 3d 1059 (S.D. Ind., June 30, 2016); Henderson v. Adams, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 180330, 2016 WL 7492478 (S.D. Ind., Dec. 30, 2016).  Judge Pratt relied on her reading of the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), which ruled that same-sex couples have a right to marry and their marriages must be treated the same for all purposes as the marriages of different-sex couples.  Just six months after Judge Pratt’s last ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court stated the same conclusion in Pavan v. Smith, 137 S. Ct. 2075 (2017), ruling that Arkansas could not refuse to list such parents on birth certificates.

In light of the Pavan ruling, one would have thought that Indiana would desist from appealing Judge Pratt’s ruling to the 7th Circuit.  But the state’s lawyers insisted that the state had a right to make the initial birth certificate of a child a record solely of the biological parents of the child, so long as they would allow same-sex spouses to seek an amended birth certificate at a later date.  Judge Pratt had rejected this argument, and the Supreme Court’s Pavan ruling vindicated her reading of the Obergefell decision’s implications for birth certificates.

Describing Judge Pratt’s first ruling, issued on June 30, 2016, Judge Easterbrook wrote, “The district court issued an injunction requiring Indiana to treat children born into female-female marriages as having two female parents, who under the injunction must be listed on the birth certificate.  Because Indiana lists only two parents on a birth certificate, this effectively prevents the state from treating as a parent a man who provided the sperm, while it requires the identification as parent of one spouse who provided neither sperm nor egg.”  Pratt concluded that this was required by Obergefell, which, Easterbrook noted, was confirmed by the Supreme Court in Pavan.

Indiana argued on this appeal that “Obergefell and Pavan do not control,” explained Easterbrook.  “In its view, birth certificates in Indiana follow biology rather than marital status.  The state insists that a wife in an opposite-sex marriage who conceives a child through artificial insemination must identify, as the father, not her husband but the sperm donor.”

By contrast, the plaintiffs argued that Indiana’s statute is status-based, not based on biology, and in fact heterosexually-married women who give birth to children conceived through donor insemination routinely designate their husbands, contrary to Indiana’s rather strange argument that the worksheet the women are given to complete in order to get the birth certificate is intended to elicit the identity of the child’s biological father – in that case, the sperm donor.  Mothers are asked to name the “father” of their child, and the state contended that this means they should be listing the sperm donor if the child was conceived through donor insemination.

That the argument is complete nonsense certainly did not help the state’s case.  Indeed, the semantic games that attorneys from the Office of the Attorney General were playing makes for a curious opinion by Easterbrook, whose tone projects some bemusement.  “The district judge thought the state’s account of mothers’ behavior to be implausible,” he wrote.  “Some mothers filling in the form may think that ‘husband’ and ‘father’ mean the same thing.  Others may name their husbands for social reasons, no matter what the form tells them to do.  Indiana contends that it is not responsible for private decisions, and that may well be so – but it is responsible for the text of Indiana Code Section 31-14-7-1(1), which establishes a presumption that applies to opposite-sex marriages but not same-sex marriages.”  This is the presumption that the husband of a married woman who gives birth is the father of her child.  “Opposite-sex couples can have their names on children’s birth certificates without going through adoption; same-sex couples cannot.  Nothing about the birth worksheet changes that rule.”

The state argued that of course the same-sex spouse can then adopt the child and be listed on an amended birth certificate.  Thus, the same-sex couple will have a birth certificate naming both of them, and the state will retain on file the original birth certificate documenting the child’s biological parentage.  But why should a married same-sex couple, entitled under the Constitution to have their marriage treated the same as a different-sex marriage, have to go through an adoption to get a proper birth certificate?

The lawsuit also sought the trial court’s declaration that the children of the two couples who brought the suit were born “in wedlock,” not “out of wedlock” as a literal interpretation of the state’s statutes would hold.  Yet again, the state’s insistence on perpetuating the former legal regime was rejected.

Judge Easterbrook identified another way that the statutes on the books fail to account for reality. What if the child of a same-sex female couple has two “biological” mothers?  Easterbrook observed that “Indiana’s current statutory system fails to acknowledge the possibility that the wife of a birth mother also is a biological mother.  One set of plaintiffs in this suit shows this.  Lisa Philips-Stackman is the birth mother of L.J.P.-S., but Jackie Philips-Stackman, Lisa’s wife, was the egg donor.  Thus Jackie is both L.J.P.-S.’s biological mother and the spouse of L.J.P.-S.’s birth mother.  There is also a third biological parent (the sperm donor), but Indiana limits to two the number of parents it will record.”

“We agree with the district court,” wrote Easterbrook, “that, after Obergefell and Pavan, a state cannot presume that a husband is the father of a child born in wedlock, while denying an equivalent presumption to parents in same-sex marriages.”  Because the current statute does that, he continued, “its operation was properly enjoined.”

However, the court of appeals found that Judge Pratt went too far when she declared that all the relevant statutory provisions are invalid in their entirety and forbade their operation “across the board,” because “some parts of these statutes have a proper application.”  For example, the provision that allows for somebody who is not a husband to the birth mother to be identified as the biological father as a result of genetic testing, and, for another example, the provision that “provides that a child is born in wedlock if the parents attempted to marry each other but a technical defect prevented the marriage from being valid.”  Easterbrook asserted that neither of these provisions violated the constitution.  “A remedy must not be broader than the legal justification for its entry, so the order in this suit must be revised,” he wrote.

“The district court’s order requiring Indiana to recognize the children of these plaintiffs as legitimate children, born in wedlock, and to identify both wives in each union as parents, is affirmed,” the court concluded.  “The injunction and declaratory judgment are affirmed to the extent they provide that the presumption in Indiana Code Sec. 31-14-7-1(1) violates the Constitution.”

Circuit Judge Easterbrook was appointed by Ronald Reagan, as was Judge Joel Flaum.  The third judge on the panel, Diane Sykes, was appointed by George W. Bush.  Thus, the ruling is the work of a panel consisting entirely of judicial conservatives appointed by Republican presidents.  The clear holding of Pavan v. Smith was such that they could not honestly rule otherwise, regardless of their personal views about same-sex marriage and parentage.  After all, in Pavan the Supreme Court rejected exactly the same arguments that Indiana was making in this case.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs include Karen Celestino-Horseman, Raymond L. Faust, Megan L. Gehring, Richard Andrew Mann, and William R. Groth, all practicing in Indianapolis in several different law firms.  Amicus briefs were filed for a variety of groups by pro bono attorneys from Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., representing the Family Equality Council, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and 49 Professors of Family Law.

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Virginia Court Denies Annulment to Woman Who Claims Her Marriage to Transgender Spouse was Induced by Fraud

This is one of those “truth is stranger than fiction” stories.  In Sun v. Riley, 2019 Va. Cir. LEXIS 1180 (Virginia – Fairfax County Cir. Ct., Dec. 30, 2019), Circuit Judge David A. Oblon denied a petition by Renee Sun to annul her marriage to Joseph Michael Riley, either on the ground that it was not consummated or that Riley had defrauded her by not disclosing an intention to transition to female gender.  The judge pointed out that Sun could alternatively seek a divorce.

Sun and Riley married on November 19, 2017.  On March 29, 2019, Riley “underwent a surgical procedure consistent with a male to female gender reassignment,” wrote Judge Oblon.  “Sun testified she learned of this, not from Riley, but from medical records she found in their bedroom.  To the contrary, Riley testified he discussed it with Sun before the procedure. Sun testified he only told her he was obtaining a vasectomy, and not a bilateral orchiectomy.”

(Translation: A vasectomy is a procedure to block the route by which sperm generated by the testicles can be ejaculated through the penis, and is one method of birth control.  A bilateral orchiectomy is a procedure by which the testicles are removed and may be a prelude to further procedures of penectomy and construction of a vagina.)

Obviously, there is a story behind this, much contested by the parties to this case.  “Prior to the marriage,” relates Judge Oblon, “Riley was ‘unsure of [his] gender,” according to his testimony.  “He engaged in hormone testing and took female hormones on May 16, 2018, roughly si months before marriage.”  He testified that he had told Sun about this “in passing,” by saying that “he was a girl and like to ‘dress up,’” and he claimed that Sun was “supportive.”  In her testimony, she recalled Riley “joking” about being a girl and liking to dress up, and she admitted he mentioned having taken hormones but explained that it was to treat “in-grown hair” and assured her that it would not turn him female, because “a doctor oversaw the treatment and the dosage was low.”  Sun testified that she did not know Riley was transitioning to become female, they had no discussions about gender reassignment, and she thought their mutual intention was to have children.  Riley claimed in his testimony that they discussed the fact that he did not want to have children.

“They never engaged in coitus once married,” wrote Oblon.  Riley claimed he had approached Sun twice to engage in sex, but she “rebuffed him” and he “did not wish to force her,” so he desisted and their marriage did not include sex.  “He denied being impotent before marriage, and on either of his two post-marriage attempts at coitus.”  Sun claimed not to recall these incidents, but testified that she never approached Riley about having sex.  “She did not testify that she ever asked him for coitus or even asked why they remained celibate.”  This situation continued from November 19, 2017 until after Riley’s surgical procedure on March 29, 2019, after which Sun’s discovery of the medical records and subsequent questioning of Riley led her to file her petition for annulment.

“When a marriage is annulled,” wrote the judge, “the law treats the marriage as a nullity.  It never happened because it was either void ab initio (such as in the case of bigamy) or it is voidable (such as in the case of marriage to one lacking capacity to consent).  “The biggest effect is that annulments are divorced from the benefits of Virginia’s equitable distribution and spousal support laws,” as a result of which “parties seeking annulment must be held to their high evidentiary burdens” – in this case, the petitioner must meet a “clear and convincing evidence standard.” By contrast, Virginia, like all other states, now has a no-fault divorce regime, and divorce is the alternative to annulment for terminating a marriage. But Sun did not file for divorce, seeking instead to have the marriage declared to have never been validly formed.

She advanced two grounds. First, she pointed out, they never had sex, so the marriage had not been “consummated.”  Judge Oblon rejected this ground, pointing out that the statute governing annulment – Va. Code. Sec. 20-89.1 – lists grounds for annulment, but lack of sexual consummation is not among them.  “Noticeably absent is ‘coitus,’ ‘sexual intercourse,’ or any synonymous term,” he wrote, pointing out as well that “coitus is nowhere included in the solemnization procedures” of the marriage law, and the word “consummated” as used in the law does not refer to sexual intercourse.

However, a marriage that was induced by fraud could be a ground for annulment under Va. Code Ann. Sec. 20-89.1(A). The party charging fraud must prove by clear and convincing evidence “(1) a false representation, (2) of a material fact, (3) made intentionally an knowingly, (4) with intent to mislead, (5) reliance by the party misled, and (6) resulting damage to the party misled.”  The court noted a prior Virginia case in which an annulment had been granted on fraud grounds, explaining: “The court did not hold that consummation was itself a condition precedent to a valid marriage.  Rather, it held that the fraud was misleading a person to marry with the intent to deny marital relations, not the lack of marital relations by itself.”

Weighing the credibility of testimony by Sun and by Riley, the court concluded that Riley was more believable than Sun on key points.  “In the present case,” he wrote, “Riley testified he entered the marriage with the intent to consummate it.  He claimed he tried twice with the ability to perform, was twice rebuffed, and that he never tried again.  The Court believed his testimony.”

Sun claimed not to recall these advances, but did not deny that Riley tried to get her to have sex.  “Tellingly,” wrote Oblon, “she admitted she never approached him for marital relations despite her stated goal of having children.  She did not even testify that she ever initiated a conversation about why they would not have sex. This is very different from the language she used in her Petition. There, she wrote, ‘the parties have not engaged in any sexual relations or sexual contact due to his vehemently refusing to do so.’  The Court finds as fact her ore tenus testimony to be more credible than her Petition and concludes that Riley did not ‘vehemently’ refuse sexual relations; rather, he tried and was rebuffed, and it was Sun who did not want these relations.”  Thus, Sun did not show by clear and convincing evidence that Riley defrauded her.

The court rejected Sun’s alternative argument that Riley’s failure to disclose before they got married any intention on his part to transition was itself fraud per se.  She claimed she believed she was marry a man who wanted to be a man and have children with her, not a person in the process of becoming a woman, and pointed to various events, including her claim that Riley concealed from the steps undertaken towards transition by misrepresenting the procedure he was getting as a vasectomy.  In response, “Riley implicitly argued that it is not as simple as Sun argues.  He testified he never wanted to be transgender, he wanted to have marital relations with Sun, and his feelings changed over time despite his wishes.”

Neither party presented expert witnesses, leaving the Court to try to figure out what was going on in this case.  In the absence of expert testimony, the court resorted to “burdens of proof and weight of evidence under the lens of its own understanding and of common sense.  So viewed, Sun has not proved by clear and convincing evidence that Riley defrauded her into marrying him.”  While Oblon conceded that Sun’s feeling of being defrauded was understandable, “she did not prove it.”  And Oblon embraced the view that “people are not static; they change over time – some in ways more dramatic than others.”

“Must a person ‘unsure of his gender’ before marriage, who now believes he was ‘not supposed to be male,’ have told this to a future spouse to avoid defrauding the spouse?” he asked.  “the Court can conceived of circumstances where failure to so inform – or to affirmatively hide these feelings – could amount to fraud in the inducement.  However, on the present record, the Court finds Sun failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that, at the time of her marriage, Riley defrauded her by knowing he did not wish to engage in and perpetuate a marriage between a man and a woman with her. The Court believed Riley that he entered the marriage believing he would be in a lifelong relationship with Sun.  It belived him that he tried to have marital relations with her.  It believed him that he was unsure of his own sexuality, but that he wanted to be married to Sun as a male.”

In effect, the court seems to have believed that Riley, not having accepted that he was transgender and not wanting to be transgendered, intended to marry Sun and live in a man-and-woman marriage.  It didn’t work out that way, but she did not prove that he intended to defraud her by marrying, and the statute places the burden of proof on the party seeking the annulment.  Furthermore, the court seems to fault Sun, stating: “Counterfactually, the evidence showed that Sun knew – pre-marriage – that he joked about being a girl and dressing up.  She knew he had taken female hormones.  She rebuffed his sexual advances and did not make advances of her own or question him as to their celibate status.  If one were to apply an ex post analysis to this case, one could make a case that Sun should have known Riley was on a trajectory toward becoming a female someday.”  So much for the fraud argument. . . .

Thus the Petition for annulment was denied.  The opinion as reported by LEXIS indicated that some text was “redacted by the court.”  The opinion lists Danielle A. Quinn of Dycio & Biggs, PC, Fairfax, as counsel for Sun.  Riley represented himself.

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Unanimous Federal Appeals Panel Blasts Trump Administration in HIV-Military Discharge Cases

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond, Virginia, blasted the Trump Administration on January 10 for relying on “outmoded”  information that is “at odds with current science” when the Air Force moved to discharge otherwise healthy HIV-positive service members based on the spurious assertion that they were not available for deployment outside the United States.  Roe v. U.S. Department of Defense, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 821, 2020 Westlaw 110826 (4th Cir., Jan. 10, 2020).

The court affirmed a preliminary injunction that was issued last year by U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, barring the discharges while the case proceeds to an ultimate ruling on the merits.  The court’s opinion, written by Circuit Judge James Wynn, provides a detailed review of relevant Defense Department policies  and current medical facts, leaving little doubt that Judge Brinkema’s conclusion that plaintiffs are likely to win their case is solidly grounded in legal reasoning.

The three-judge panel consisted of Wynn, who was appointed by Barack Obama, and Albert Diaz and Henry Floyd, both also appointed by Obama.  At the time of his nomination to the court of appeals, Judge Floyd was a District Judge who had been appointed by George W. Bush.

Lambda Legal and Outserve-SLDN brought the case on behalf of two service members, anonymously identified as Richard Roe and Victor Voe, as well as other Outserve members who are HIV-positive and subject to discharge for that reason.  Both Roe and Voe had years of meritorious service when they were diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2017 as a result of the Defense Department’s policy of periodically requiring personnel to submit to HIV testing.  Both men immediately went into treatment, are taking retroviral therapy, have undetectable HIV, and are healthy and uncompromised in their ability to perform their duties.

Defense Department written policies state unequivocally that HIV-positive personnel who are “determined to be fit for duty will be allowed to serve in a manner that ensures access to appropriate medical care.”  The Air Force has a written policy stating that HIV-positive status “alone is not grounds for medical separation or retirement,” and states that “force-wide, HIV-infected employees are allowed to continue working as long as they are able to maintain acceptable performance and do not pose a safety or health threat to themselves or others,” and “may not be separated solely on the basis of laboratory evidence of HIV infection.”

The Catch-22, however, comes with the Air Force’s insistence that personnel must be deployable anywhere in the world, and in particular to the central theater of Air Force active operations, known as CENTCOM, which covers operations spanning North Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East.  Under a rule known as “Modification 13,” personnel who are “found to be medically non-deployable will not enter [the Central Command area] until the non-deployable condition is completely resolved or an approved waiver is obtained.”  It lists “confirmed HIV infection” as “disqualifying for deployment.”  The official in charge of granting waivers has stated that it is highly unlikely that a waiver would be granted for HIV-positive servicemembers to be deployed to CENTCOM’s area, and in fact no such waiver has ever been granted.

In this litigation, the Defense Department takes the position that neither it, nor in particular the Air Force, has an absolute ban on continued employment of healthy HIV-positive personnel.  On the other hand, since most of the Air Force’s current activity is in the CENTCOM area, Modification 13 prohibits deployment of HIV-positive personnel to CENTCOM without a waiver, and the official in charging of granting waivers does not grant them for HIV-positive personnel, there is, de facto, a ban.

The lawsuit claims that the discharge of Roe, Voe and similarly-situated service members for being HIV-positive violates the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), as being “arbitrary and capricious” in light of the facts of their individual cases, and also violates the Equal Protection requirements of the 5th Amendment.  Judge Brinkema and the court of appeals narrowed their attention to the alleged APA violation, under the well-established approach of avoiding making a constitutional ruling if the plaintiff can prevail based on a statutory claim.

In this case, it seemed clear to Brinkema and the appeals panel that the government’s position was inconsistent with medical facts, based on outmoded ideas about HIV and current treatments. The court emphasized that Roe and Voe take daily pills that do not require any special treatment (refrigeration, for example, or shielding from temperature extremes, which were required for some HIV treatments prior to the introduction of the pills now in use) and have not generated any significant side effects for either man.  The court summarizes the well-established science that somebody with undetectable levels of HIV presents virtually no risk of transmission through casual contact, and even blood exposure or sexual contact with somebody under retroviral treatment whose HIV level is undetectable is highly unlikely to result in transmission.

Both men present themselves as fully capable of performing their duties, and in both cases their commanding officers have endorsed their request to be allowed to continue serving, as have military physicians.  However, the Air Force, despite the requirements in published policies to evaluate each case on its individual merits, has maintained a de facto categorical exclusion.  Each man appealed the initial rulings against them internally, and both were met with virtually identical formulaic statements that they had to be discharged on medical grounds under the deployability rules, suggesting that their cases did not receive individualized consideration.

“To comply with the APA,” wrote Judge Wynn, “the agency must examine the relevant data and articulate a satisfactory explanation for its action including a rational connection between the facts found the choice made.  Agency action is arbitrary and capricious when the agency has relied on factors which Congress has not intended it to consider, entirely failed to consider an important aspect of the problem, offered an explanation for its decision that runs counter to the evidence before the agency, or is so implausible that it could not be ascribed to a difference in view or the product of agency expertise.”

Analyzing these requirements, Wynn pointed out that “the Government has taken inconsistent positions on whether HIV-positive servicemembers may deploy to CENTCOM’s area of responsibility.” Prior to this litigation, the Government has treated Modification 13 as “a categorical ban,” but now it tries to appear to conform to APA requirements by emphasizing the possibility of a waiver being granted.  But this position is belied by the evidence that waivers have not been granted in any HIV case, despite the facts concerning these plaintiffs.

“If Modification 13 is not a categorical ban,” wrote Wynn, “the Air Force acted arbitrarily by treating them as categorically ineligible to deploy to CENTCOM’s area of responsibility and denying Plaintiffs the required individualized assessment of their fitness for continued service.  If Modification 13 is a categorical ban, the Government failed to satisfy the APA’s requirements in promulgating their policy.”

The court of appeals concluded that Judge Brinkema “rightly found that Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on their claim that the Air Force’s discharge decisions were arbitrary and capricious, in violation of the APA.”  This is the threshold factor in deciding whether to issue a preliminary injunction to pause the discharge process while the case is litigation has been met.  In this case, the men were designated for discharge without any individualized assessment, and furthermore without even applying for a waiver and being turned down, since the Air Force’s decision-makers predicted that CENTCOM would deny a waiver in their cases, making any such application virtually futile.  “Such a categorical predictive assessment is not ‘a satisfactory explanation’ for discharging each servicemember,” wrote Wynn, “and in using this predictive assessment to discharged these servicemembers, the Air Force violated Department of Defense regulations, failed to consider important aspects of the criteria for discharge, and explained its decision in a manner contrary to the evidence before it.”

Indeed, wrote Wynn, “Upon review, each explanation offered by the Government for the policy is unsupported by the record or contradicted by scientific evidence, leading us to conclude Plaintiffs have adequately shown that the Government failed to consider the relevant evidence and offers explanations so contrary to that evidence as to be arbitrary.”

For example, the court found the Government’s claim that HIV requires “highly specialized” treatment to be unsupported by the record in this case, which shows that managing HIV through anti-retroviral medications involves taking a single daily pill, “which does not require special storage or handling,” minimal side effects, and periodic blood tests that  can be simply performed by any general practitioner in the field, which are reduced to once a year after somebody has been “undetectable” for a period of two years.

The court similarly dismissed some of the standard arguments that were made earlier in the epidemic prior to current treatment protocols, and found that “the risk of battlefield transmission is unsupported by the record,” given the medical evidence that those with undetectable viral loads don’t transmit the virus.  The court found that the Defense Department’s own internal research showed that out of 1.13 million Army servicemembers deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq between 2001 and 2007, only 131 seroconverted, a lower rate than among servicemembers who were not deployed to those countries, and there was only one documented case of a servicemember who had seroconverted during deployment.  Furthermore, there was no documentation of any servicemember contracting HIV through non-sexual means, and no instances of transmission through  trauma care, blood splash, transfusion, or other battlefield circumstances.  In short, the government’s explanations for its policy were contradicted by the data it generated through its own internal studies.

“A ban on deployment may have been justified at a time when HIV treatment was less effective at managing the virus and reducing transmission risks,” wrote Wynn.  “But any understanding of HIV that could justify this ban is outmoded and at odds with current science.  Such obsolete understandings cannot justify a ban, even under a deferential standard of review and even according appropriate deference to the military’s professional judgements.”  As to Modification 13, relied upon so heavily by the Air Force in this case, it “evidences a complete failure to reasonably reflect upon the information contained in the record and grapple with contrary evidence – disregarding entirely the need for reasoned decision-making.”

The court found that plaintiffs easily met the other tests for obtaining preliminary relief, showing they are likely to suffer irreparable harm if they are given medical discharges.  Such discharges would effectively require them to “out” themselves as HIV-positive when they apply for non-military employment, and the interruption of their military careers would set them back in tangible and intangible ways if they ultimately won their cases and the Air Force was ordered to take them back.

The court also endorsed Judge Brinkema’s conclusion that the balance of the equities and the public interest support requiring the Air Force to keep these men employed while their cases are pending.  As to the argument that the injunction improperly intrudes into military personnel decision-making, the court agreed with Judge Brinkema that the relief request by the plaintiffs “that Defendants adhere to their stated policies and make nonarbitrary, personalized determinations about each individual’s fitness for service did not do violence to the notion of military independence.”

Thus, the court upheld Judge Brinkema’s order that the Air Force not discharge “active-duty servicemembers because they are classified as ineligible to deploy to CENTCOM’s area of responsibility due to their HIV status.”  The court rejected the government’s ritualistic opposition to a nation-wide injunction, finding that Supreme Court precedents support such relief in a case such as this.

In a parting shot, Judge Wynn wrote, “The Government’s explanations for why it has imposed an effective ban on deploying HIV-positive servicemembers to CENTCOM’s areas of responsibility are at odds with modern science.”  After concisely summarizing the basic evidence, he commented, “the Government did not consider these realities when discharging these servicemembers, instead relying on assumptions and categorical determinations.  As a result, the Air Force denied these servicemembers an individual determination of their fitness for military service,” which violates the APA.

Lambda Legal’s lead attorney on the case is Scott Schoettes of Lambda’s Chicago office.  Outserve-SLDN’s lead attorney is Peter Perkowski, Washington, D.C.  Amicus briefs were filed on behalf of a variety of individuals and groups, represented by Winston & Strawn LLP and Dentons US LLP, as well as GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, a Boston-based public interest law firm.

 

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Federal Court Overrules Board of Immigration Appeals’ Denial of Spousal Petition by Gay Man

U.S. District Judge Mary Rowland, an out lesbian whose nomination to the federal bench by President Donald J. Trump was recently confirmed by the Senate, has ruled that the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) erred in denying a petition by Thomas Valdivia, Jr., a U.S. citizen, to award spousal residency rights to his husband, Radu Cheslerean, a Romanian citizen.  Valdivia v. Barr, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 191616 (N.D. Ill., Nov. 5, 2019).  The Board, affirming a district director’s decision to deny the petition, rested its ruling on its conclusion that Cheslerean had previously married a woman in order to obtain U.S. immigration benefits.

The story begins on December 31, 2005, when Cheslerean attended a New Year’s Eve party and met Nina Garcia, whom he married about a month later.  In August 2006, Garcia filed an I-130 Petition with the Immigration Service, seeking U.S. spousal residency rights for her husband. That November, Garcia and Cheslerean went with their lawyer to an interview at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Chicago.  After the interview, nothing happened until July 31, 2009, when the Chicago office director issued a Notice of Intent to Deny the I-130 petition.  In September 2009, USCIS denied the petition and Garcia appealed to the BIA, which dismissed the appeal in February, 2011.  Several months later, Garcia and Cheslerean divorced.  The Judgment of Divorce states that they “lived separate and apart as of March 15, 2007, and had no children together.

Several years later, Cheslerean married Valdivia on May 17, 2015.  On September 6, 2016, Valdivia filed an I-130 petition on behalf of Cheslerean, and the men were interviewed at the Chicago Field Office on January 12, 2017.  When the office issued a Notice of Intent to Deny, Cheslerean submitted an affidavit explaining his two marriages.  He stated that in his “relationship with Nina, we did not plan ahead, or have insurance or much other evidence of a commingled life because we had very little money, and any savings we had we would just spend.  We were young and immature and didn’t think about the future or plan ahead.”  Describing his relationship with Valdivia, Cheslerean wrote that he grew up in a conservative Christian orthodox family that treated homosexuality as a sin, and “coming to terms with who I am and living my life authentically as a gay man was a painful journey and it took me a lot longer than it takes other gay men these days.”  But the Chicago Director denied Valdivia’s petition in March 2017, and the BIA dismissed his appeal on December 14, 2017, leading to this lawsuit.

The premise for the BIA’s decision is a section of the immigration statute that says a Form I-130 cannot be approved if the beneficiary (in this case Cheslerean) has ever sought immigration benefits based on a marriage entered into to evade immigration laws — what the Immigration Service refers to as a “sham marriage.”  The agency and the BIA concluded that the marriage with Garcia had been for the purpose of getting immigration benefits and was not a genuine marriage.  Cheslerean tells a different story, and in this lawsuit, Valdivia and Cheslerean contend that neither marriage was a sham marriage, each was genuine in its own way, even though the earlier one did not last very long and came apart when Garcia’s I-130 Petition was finally denied by the BIA.

The BIA specifically emphasized an affidavit that Valdivia had filed in 2009 in support of Garcia’s petition of the I-130 on behalf of Cheslerean.  The BIA argued that “Valdivia offered no explanation in his 2017 affidavit (submitted in support of his own I-130 Petition on behalf of Cheslerean) why he did not include his account of the 2007 events in his 2009 affidavit filed in support of Cheslerean’s marriage to Garcia.”  In responding to this lawsuit, BIA argued that the two affidavits “created issues of credibility for all concerned” because Valdivia’s 2017 affidavit “made it obvious that he was being less than fully candid in August of 2009 when he did not disclose the true nature of his relationship to Cheslerean.”

But Judge Rowland was not convinced by this.  “Nowhere in the USCIS and BIA decision was Validiva’s credibility an issue, based on his 2017 affidavit or anything else,” she wrote.  “Defendants argue that the BIA ‘indicated they reviewed the response to the NOID that included the Valdivia affidavit.’  The BIA did state that it reviewed the response to the NOID, but nowhere in the decision did the BIA discuss or reference Valdivia’s 2017 affidavit or state that it created credibility issues for any of the affiants at the time.”  From a look-back to the earlier proceeding, it seems that the denial of Garcia’s petition was, as explained in Cheslerean’s affidavit in the current case, premised on the failure to check the boxes that CSIS uses to evaluate I-130 applications in an attempt to weed out sham marriages – most specifically the lack of commingled resources and other documentary evidence such as insurance policies.

“The USCIS and BIA did not based their decisions [in this case] on a finding that Valdivia failed to disclose his earlier attraction to Cheslerean,” wrote Judge Rowland.  “To the contrary, the USCIS found that the evidence submitted in response to the NOID ‘mainly reiterated what was stated in statements previously submitted in regards to the marriage of Ms. Garcia and Mr. Cheslerean.’” Thus, she found that the Defendant’s arguments now about the 2017 Valdivia affidavit violate a doctrine that an agency many not defend the administrative decision in the Garcia case based on a new ground that was not mentioned in its original decision.

The BIA now sought to rely as well on the fact that in 2009, the USCIS Director in Chicago explained the ruling by referring to an admission by Garcia that she and Cheslerean were “just friends” even though they were not formally divorced until after the BIA’s 2011 decision.  “Defendants raise the issue of the short duration of the Garcia-Cheslerean marriage and point out that Garcia’s 2009 affidavit stated that Cheslerean ‘is now a good friend.’  Neither the 2017 BIA decision nor the 2017 USCIS decision rely on this statement to support a finding of marriage fraud.  Moreover, this statement by Garcia refers to her relationship with Cheslerean in 2009, not their relationship when they married in 2006.”  Under agency and court decisions about these issues, it is clear that the question of “sham marriage” relates to the time the marriage was entered into, not the state of the relationship years later.

Judge Rowland referred to a prior immigration ruling stating that “the fact that a marriage at some point becomes nonviable or nonsubsisting does not in itself indicate that the marriage was a sham at its inception,” and since it is the purpose for which a couple marries that is the focus of attention for purposes of immigration law, the fact that Garcia and Cheslerean were no longer living together by the time the BIA denied Garcia’s appeal was not relevant to whether the earlier marriage should now be a disqualifying factor on Valdivia’s petition for residency rights for his husband.  Nobody is contending that the marriage between Valdivia and Cheslerean is anything but bona fide.

Ultimately, Judge Rowland concluded that the records about the earlier marriage and I-130 petition did not prove that the earlier marriage was a sham.  The story told by Valdivia and Cheslerean now is credible.  Garcia and Cheslerean met at a party and married, that marriage eventually broke up, perhaps we might speculate partly with Cheslerean’s discovery that he was actually falling in love with their mutual friend, Valdivia.  Cheslerean finally embraced his sexual orientation and became Valdivia’s boyfriend and then his husband.  Case closed.

Valdivia and Cheslerean are represented by Noelia Rodriguez-Quinones and Nancy Marcia Vizer of Chicago.

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New York Federal Judge Vacates Trump Administration “Conscience” Regulation

U.S. District Judge Paul A. Engelmayer issued an extraordinarily lengthy opinion on November 6, concluding that a regulation adopted by the Trump Administration’s Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) intended to protect from discrimination employees in the health care industry who refused to provide services because of their religious beliefs is invalid.   The case is State of New York v. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2019 WL 5781789, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 193207 (S.D.N.Y.).

 

The lawsuit was brought by a coalition of states, cities, Planned Parenthood, and a Family Planning and Reproductive Health services organization, that stood to lose substantial federal funding for their programs if they were found to violate the regulation, which imposed substantial compliance requirements on them.  They argued that the measure violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on an “establishment of religion.”  But Judge Engelmayer, rejecting a “facial” Establishment Clause challenge, instead premised his ruling on other arguments by the plaintiffs, asserting violations of the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Spending Clause and Separation of Powers requirements of the Constitution.

 

Judge Engelmayer summarized the Rule, which was adopted on May 21 (84 Fed. Reg. 23,170 – codified at 45 C.F.R. pt. 88), originally set to go into effect on July 22, to “interpret and provide for the implementation of more than 30 statutory provisions that recognize the right of an individual or entity to abstain from participation in medical procedures, programs, services, or research activities on account of a religious or moral objection.”  The statutory provisions, usually added to particular laws as amendments offered by legislators during congressional consideration of the bills, are usually referred to as “conscience provisions.” After this lawsuit was filed, HHS agreed to delay the effective date of the regulation until November 22, so it has never actually gone into effect and will not go into effect any time soon unless the government obtains a stay of Judge Engelmayer’s opinion pending an appeal.

 

Most of the conscience provisions are intended to protect employees who refuse to participate in performing abortions, sterilizations, or assisted suicides, but some go further, extending to any medical practice or procedure, and theoretically could protect employees who refuse to provide services to LGBTQ people due to religious or moral objections.  While some of the provisions were aimed specifically at licensed health care professional employees who actually perform such procedures, others could theoretically apply to any employee – such as an orderly, an ambulance driver, or anybody else employed in a supportive or administrative role – whose religious or moral beliefs would be compromised by providing the service in question.

 

In addition to describing the various statutory conscience provisions, Judge Engelmayer noted a provision in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires employers to make a “reasonable accommodation” to the religious practices or beliefs of employees, with the test of reasonableness being whether the accommodation would impose an undue hardship on the employer.  The Supreme Court has traditionally interpreted this provision to require employers to bear no more than a “de minimus” expense to accommodate religious objectors.

 

The George W. Bush administration promulgated a conscience regulation late in 2008 that was to take effect on the first day of the Obama Administration, but a legal challenge was filed and although “much of the rule” did take effect while the litigation continued, many contentious provisions were never rigorously enforced and HHS rescinded much of that Rule in 2011.

 

After taking office, President Trump issued an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” which directed the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law” and generally stating that the federal government should protect religious freedom to the extent possible under the Constitution.  On October 6, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum proclaiming that under the 1st Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, an individual has “the right to perform or abstain from performing certain physical acts in according with one’s beliefs,” mentioning many of the statutory conscience provisions.  HHS then proceeded to issue a notice of proposed ruling-making to translate Sessions’ memorandum into written regulations, publishing its “final rule” on May 21, 2019.

 

Judge Engelmayer found that the 2019 Rule “substantially expands” on the 2008 Rule, applying to more than 30 conscience provisions (where the 2008 Rule applied to only three of them). He includes a detailed description of the Rule, including its very broad definition of which employees and entities are covered, a very broad definition of what counts as “discrimination,” and detailed procedures that employers in the health care field are supposed to follow to ensure that employees know about their rights to object or abstain, including requirements to certify their compliance with the Rule as a condition of receiving funding under federal programs, such as Medicare.  The stated intent of the Rules is to go as far as the Constitution and statutes allow in protecting those who object to doing their job because of religious, moral or ethical objections to particular procedures or practices by holding the loss of funding over employers who fail to accommodate religious objectors to the extent spelled out in the Rule.

 

The plaintiffs advanced five constitutional arguments against the rule.  They first argued that it violates the Establishment Clause, by forcing recipients of federal funds to “conform their business practices to the religious practices of their employees, imposing an absolute duty to accommodate such practices,” going far beyond the existing accommodation duty under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Second, they argued it violates the Spending Clause because the threat to withhold all federal funding for is “unconstitutionally coercive” and because the conditions it imposes are “ambiguous, retroactive, not reasonably related to the purpose of HHS’s programs under which the funds are provided, and thus unconstitutional.”  They argued that the Rule violates the constitutional separation of powers by, among other things, empowering the executive branch to unconstitutionally impound funds that Congress has appropriated.  They also made two Fifth Amendment arguments: void for vagueness as a result of ambiguities and inconsistences with other federal laws, inviting arbitrary enforcement; and violating the due process rights of patients to privacy and liberty, in particular by interfering with patients’ ability to obtain abortions and other procedures to which some health care workers object.

 

Judge Engelmayer rejected the government’s argument that the rule was merely a “housekeeping” measure intended to consolidate enforcement of the various statutory conscience provisions by centralizing enforcement in HHS’s Office of Civil Rights and to standardize definitions and requirements that varied among the thirty statutes.  Instead, he found, the Rule made substantive changes in the law.

 

“On this threshold dispute,” wrote the judge, “there is a definite answer.  Although the 2019 Rule has housekeeping features, plaintiffs’ description of it as largely substantive – and, indeed, in key respects transformative—is correct.  And HHS’s characterization of the Rule as solely ministerial cannot be taken seriously.”  He noted that the government had actually abandoned this position during oral argument.  “Whether or not the rule was properly adopted,” he wrote, it “unavoidably would shape the primary conduct of participants through the health care industry. It would upend the legal status quo with respect to the circumstances and manner in which conscience objections must be accommodated.  And the maximum penalty the Rule authorizes for a violation of the Conscience Provisions – the termination of all of a recipient’s HHS funding, from whatever program derived – is new, too.”

 

Supporting this conclusion, Judge Englemayer explained how the rule vastly expanded employers’ religious accommodation requirements under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, how it substantially broadened the definition of “protected activities” of religious objectors, down to the level of protecting a receptionist who might refuse to schedule a patient for a procedure to which the receptionist has ethical objections.  Unlike the statutory conscience provisions, he noted, the Rule would “for the first time” permit “abstention from activities ancillary to a medical procedure, including ones that occur on days other than that of the procedure.”  It also extended the definition of “covered entities” from health care providers to pharmacists and medical laboratories, and significantly expands the financial exposure of covered entities by authorizing draconian cut-offs of funding.

 

Judge Engelmayer decided the Rule is not a facial violation of the Establishment Clause, which would require finding that all of its provisions are unconstitutional in all their potential applications, but he acknowledged that it could be challenged “as applied” to particular situations – a test that might never arise because of his action in declaring the Rule invalid on other grounds.

 

First, the judge found that HHS did not comply with the requirements of the Administrative Procedure Act governing the adoption of regulations, by going beyond the limits of rulemaking authority.  Agencies must base their rules and regulations on statutory policy decisions expressed by Congress, and cannot engage in legislating beyond those policy decisions.  The judge found that in this Rule HHS went over the line into legislation, especially noting the way the Rule expanded definitions, covered entities, enforcement authority, and penalties.  He found that HHS did not have authority under the APA to make all of these substantive legal changes without specific authorization in the statutes.

 

The sheer scale of the Rule’s potential impact played a large part in the decision.  The judge found that the Rule “puts in jeopardy billions of dollars in federal health care funds.  In fiscal year 2018, for example,” he wrote, “the State Plaintiffs received $200 billion in federal health care funding.  New York alone received $46.9 billion. The Provider Plaintiffs similarly received hundreds of millions in funding from HHS.”  He also noted the political significance of the Rule, as it took positions beyond those actually taken by Congress on such controversial issues as abortion and assisted suicide.

 

“In a case involving economic consequences and political dynamics on such a scale,” wrote the judge, “the Supreme Court teaches that ‘we expect Congress to speak clearly’ were it to delegate rulemaking authority. . .  Far from speaking clearly here, in none of the three statutes at issue did Congress give any indication that it intended to subcontract the process of legal standard-setting to an administrative agency in particular, or HHS in particularly,” noting that the three principal statutes with Conscience Provisions don’t even mention HHS.  And, the judge rejected the government’s contention that such a delegation was “implicit” in the enactment of those conscience provisions.  He noted that the Supreme Court had rejected a similar “implicit delegation” argument in connection with its interpretation of Title VII’s accommodation provisions and the attempts by the EEOC to interpret them.

 

He also concluded that HHS did not act in accordance with law in promulgating the rule, having taken shortcuts (rather typical of the Trump Administration) in skirting the detailed procedures set out in the APA.  The two most important flaws the court found were establishing rules that conflict with Title VII, and rules conflicting with the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTLA), by purporting to authorize employees with religious objections to withhold services in emergency situations.  The judge found that two basic Title VII concepts that the Rule “overrides” are key components of the specific language Congress adopted in 1972 amendments to Title VII “to address workplace religious objections.”  An agency cannot displace express statutory provisions by adopting a contrary rule.  Similarly, he noted that EMTLA “does not include any exception for religious or moral refusals to provide emergency care” and courts had declined to “read in” exceptions to that statute’s mandates, but the HHS Rule “applies in emergency-care situations,” purporting to create a “conscience exception” in a law that does not have one.

 

Also, turning to the APA’s substantive requirements, an agency that is adopting a rule that changes the law is required to document the need for such a change.  In this case, HHS just lied, claiming that there had been a substantial increase in complaints by health care employees about being forced to perform objectionable procedures or being disciplined for refusing to do so.  “In fact, upon the Court’s review of the complaints on which HHS relies,” wrote Engelmayer, “virtually none address the Conscience Provisions at all, let alone indicate a deficiency in the agency’s enforcement capabilities as to these laws.  And HHS, in this litigation, admitted that only a tiny fraction of the complaints that its Rule invoked as support were even relevant to the Conscience Provisions.  A Court ‘cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanations given,’” he wrote, quoting from Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion in June striking down the Trump Administration’s attempt to add citizenship questions to the 2020 Census Forms.  In that case, the Supreme Court found evidence that the Administration wanted to add the questions for political purposes, but prompted the Justice Department to come up with a phony justification invoking data needs to enforce the Voting Rights Act, even though experts in the Census Bureau warned that adding the questions would make the Census count less accurate by deterring non-citizens resident in the U.S. from participating.  He pointed out that the large majority of religiously-connected complaints received by HHS had to do with vaccinations, “which HHS admits fall outside the scope of the Conscience Provisions and the Rule.”

 

He also found unconvincing other explanations offered by HHS, and was especially critical of ways in which the Final Rule differed from the Rule as it was originally proposed and published for public comment concerning the definition of “discrimination.”  The judge concluded, in sum, that failed procedures in adopting the Rule under the APA were sufficient to invoke the court’s authority to declare the rule invalid and order it to be “vacated.”

 

But there was more, because the judge also found constitutional violations both of separation of powers and the Spending Clause.

 

Judge Engelmayer focused on the Rule’s remedial provision authorizing the termination of all HHS funding to an entity found to have violated the Rule, finding that this had not been authorized by Congress.  Thus, its adoption was a serious violation of the separation of powers.  He agreed with plaintiffs that the Rule “is inconsistent with the separation of powers because it allows HHS to withhold congressionally-appropriated federal funds to an extent that neither the [statutory] Conscience Provisions nor any other statute authorizes.  By claiming the power to do so, plaintiffs argue, HHS arrogates to itself, an executive agency, a power the Constitution allocates uniquely to Congress.”

 

Responding to this argument, the judge pointed out that an agency “must exercise its delegated spending authority consistent with specific congressional grant” and that an “agency may not withhold funds in a manner, or to an extent, unauthorized by Congress.” Thus, the remedial provision of the Rule exceeds the agency’s authority.

 

Furthermore, he found other violations specifically routed in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Spending Clause.  He noted four principles relevant to this case: “conditions based on the receipt of federal funds must be set out unambiguously,” the “financial inducement offered by Congress” must not be “impermissibly coercive,” the conditions must relate “to the federal interest in the project and to the overall objective thereof,” and “the power may not be used to induce the States to engage in activities that would themselves be unconstitutional.”  Judge Engelmayer found it clear that the Rule violated at least the first two of these principles, pointing to specific ambiguities and internal contradictions in the Rule. And the draconian forfeiture of all funding as a remedy for a violation of the Rule was “impermissibly coercive.”

 

Finally, he concluded that the faults he had detected merited an order to the agency to vacate the Rule.  He pointed out that it has long been “standard practice under the APA” for a court to order that a rule be vacated when the court determines that “agency regulations are unlawful.”  He quoted a Supreme Court opinion on point, stating that “regulations subject to the APA cannot be afforded the force and effect of law if not promulgated pursuant to the statutory minimum found in that Act.”  The APA itself says that a court shall “hold unlawful and set aside agency action, findings and conclusions” that the court finds to be “arbitrary and capricious, not in accordance with law, in excess of statutory authority, unconstitutional, or made without observance of procedures required by law.”

 

The judge rejected the government’s suggestion that he could go through the Rule stripping out objectionable parts and letting the rest go into effect, commenting that “the APA violations that the Court has found… are numerous, fundamental, and far-reaching.  The Court’s finding that HHS lacked substantive rule-making authority as to three of the five principal Conscience Provisions nullifies the heart of the Rule as to these statutes.  The Court’s finding that the agency acted contrary to two major existing laws (Title VII and EMTALA) vitiates substantive definitions in the Rule affecting health care employment and emergency contexts.  The Court’s finding that HHS failed to give proper notice of the definition it adopted of “discriminate or discrimination” voids that central dimension of the Rule.”  Letting a few selected provisions go into effect would “ignore the big picture: that the rulemaking exercise here was sufficiently shot through with glaring legal defects as to not justify a search for survivors.”

 

He also rejected HHS’s suggestion, common to Trump Administration arguments when courts are finding its executive actions invalid, that his order should be limited in effect to the Southern District of New York, or just to the named plaintiffs in the case, pointing out that this would lead to a proliferation of litigation around the country “to assure that such a Rule was never applied,” finding plenty of precedential support for this position in prior court of appeals opinions supporting trial court orders to vacate unlawfully promulgated rules.

 

“The Conscience Provisions recognize and protect undeniably important rights,” wrote Engelmayer.  “The Court’s decision today leaves HHS at liberty to consider and promulgate rules governing these provisions.  In the future, however, the agency must do so within the confines of the APA and the Constitution.”

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Kentucky Supreme Court Avoids Ruling on Clash Between Free Speech and Anti-Discrimination Law in T-Shirt Case

In a case that drew 26 amicus briefs – an unusually high number for an argument in a Midwestern state high court, the Kentucky Supreme Court found an off-ramp from having to decide whether a small business that produces custom t-shirts has a right to refuse an order to print a shirt with whose message the business owner disagrees in Lexington-Fayetteville Urban County Human Rights Commission v. Hands on Originals, 2019 Ky. LEXIS 431, 2019 WL 5677638 (October 31, 2019).  The court decided that the appellant, the local human rights commission that had ruled against the business, had no jurisdiction because the entity that filed the discrimination complaint in the case was not an “individual” within the meaning of the local civil rights ordinance.

The case originated in February 2012 when a representative of the Gay & Lesbian Services Organization (GLSO), an advocacy organization in Lexington that was planning for its fifth annual Lexington Pride Festival, came to Hands On Originals, the t-shirt business, with an order for t-shirts to be used in connection with the Festival.  Hands on Originals is a small business with three owners, all of whom identify as Christians who operate the business consistently with their understanding of the Bible.  Their website has a non-discrimination statement, which includes “sexual orientations”, but says that “due to the promotional nature of our products, it is the prerogative of Hands on Originals to refuse any order that would endorse positions that conflict with the convictions of the ownership.”  The design that GLSO presented bore the name “Lexington Pride Festival” with rainbow-colored circles around an enlarged number “5” in recognition of the 5th year of the Festival, and no other text.  The employee who took the order reviewed it and quoted a price.

“The following month,” wrote Justice Laurence V. VanMeter in the court’s opinion, “a different GLSO representative contacted Hands On about the price quote and spoke with Adamson [one of the owners], who had not yet viewed the t-shirt design.  Adamson inquired into what the Pride Festival was and learned that the t-shirts would be in support of the LGBTQ+ community.  Adamson advised the GLSO representative that because of his personal religious beliefs, Hands On could not print a t-shirt promoting the Pride Festival and its message advocating pride in being LGBTQ+.  Adamson offered to refer GLSO to another printing shop.”  In the event, after word about this got out, a Cincinnati business printed the t-shirts for GLSO free of charge.  But GLSO’s president filed a complaint on behalf of the organization with the local human rights commission, charging violation of the Lexington-Fayetteville Human Rights Ordinance, which forbids discrimination against any individual based on their sexual orientation or gender identity by public accommodations.

The commission ruled in favor of the complainants, but was overruled by the Fayette Circuit Court, which instructed the commission to dismiss the charges.  The commission and GLSO appealed.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court, but the panel split, producing three opinions, out of which a majority concluded that the anti-discrimination provision was not violated by Hands On engaging in viewpoint or message censorship as a non-governmental entity.

Justice VanMeter’s opinion focused on the language of the ordinance, which provides that an “individual” claiming to be aggrieved by an unlawful practice can file a complaint with the commission.  The court concluded, by examining both the context of the ordinance and the contents of other states referenced in the ordinance, that “only an individual – being a single human – can bring a discrimination claim” under the ordinance.  Although an individual, a representative of GLSO, had filed the original complainant with the Commission, it was not filed in his individual capacity but rather as a representative of GLSO.  Thus, because “GLSO itself was the only plaintiff to file a claim” and “it did not purport to name any individual on whose behalf it was bringing the claim,” therefore GLSO “lacked the requisite statutory standing” to invoke the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Commission.

The court pointed out that Hands On “argued first to the Hearing Commissioner that GLSO, as an organization, did not have standing under the ordinance to bring a claim.”  The Hearing Commissioner rejected that argument, reaching a conclusion that the court rejects in this opinion: that an “individual” as named in the ordinance could also be an organization.  Hands On continued to push this argument through all levels of review, so it was not waived when the Kentucky Supreme Court agreed to review the lower court decisions.

“While this result is no doubt disappointing to many interested in this case and its potential outcome,” wrote Justice VanMeter, “the fact that the wrong party filed the complaint makes the discrimination analysis almost impossible to conduct, including issues related to freedom of expression and religion.  Normally in these cases, courts look to whether the requesting customer, or some end user that will actually use the product, is a member of the protected class.  And even when the reason for the denial is something other than status (conduct, for example), ways exist to determine whether the individual(s) (the requesting customer(s) or end user(s)) was actually discriminated against because of the conduct cited is so closely related to that individual’s status.  But in either scenario (whether the person allegedly discriminated against is the requesting customer or some end user) the individual is the one who has filed the lawsuit, so the court can properly determine whether that person has been discrimination against.”

VanMeter insisted that the court finds “impossible to ascertain” in this case whether the organization that filed the discrimination charge is a “member of the protected class.”  “No end user may have been denied the service who is a member of the protected class, or perhaps one was.  If so, then the determination would have to follow whether the reason for denial of service constitutes discrimination under the ordinance, and then whether the local government was attempting to compel expression, had infringed on religious liberty, or had failed to carry its burden” under the law.  “But without an individual . . .  this analysis cannot be conducted.”

This reasoning strikes us as hair-splitting in the extreme, but is not surprising considering that courts prefer to avoid deciding controversial issues if they can find a way to do so.  The Lexington-Fayetteville ordinance, by its terms, does not have protected classes.  Like the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is a “forbidden grounds” measure, not a “protected class” measure.  Everybody, regardless of their race, is protected from race discrimination, for example.  There are no “protected classes” who have an exclusive claim to being protected against discrimination on any of the grounds mentioned in the ordinance.  Thus, VanMeter’s explanation is premised on a misconception of the ordinance.  But, as a decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court on a question of state law, it is final unless or until it is overruled by the Kentucky Supreme Court or rendered irrelevant by an amendment to the ordinance.  As it stands, however, it creates a large loophole in the coverage of the ordinance that was probably not intended by the local legislative bodies that enacted the measure.

Six members of the seven-member court sat in this case.  Four members of the court concurred in VanMeter’s opinion.  Justice David Buckingham wrote a separate concurring opinion.  Although he agreed with the court that GLSO lacked standing to file the charge, he wanted to express his view that the “Lexington Fayette Human Rights Commission went beyond its charge of preventing discrimination in public accommodation and instead attempted to compel Hands On to engage in expression with which it disagreed.”  He found support in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1995 decision overruling the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that the organizers of the Boston Saint Patrick’s Day Parade case had violate the state’s human rights law by excluding a gay Irish group from marching in the parade, and a ruling earlier this year by the 8th Circuit court of Appeals reversing a district court decision concerning a videographer who sought a declaration that his business would not be required under Minnesota’s civil rights laws to produce videos of same-sex marriages.  In a lengthy opinion, Justice Buckingham cited numerous cases supporting the proposition that the government crosses an important individual freedom line when it seeks to compel speech.  “Compelling individuals to mouth support for view they find objectionable violates that most cardinal constitutional command,” he wrote, “and in most contexts, any such effort would be universally condemned.”  While reiterating his support for the ruling on “standing” by the majority of the court, he wrote, “if we were to reach the substantive issues, I would affirm the Fayette Circuit Court’s Opinion and Order,” which was premise in this First Amendment free speech argument.

Because the court’s decision is based entirely on its interpretation of the local ordinance and various Kentucky statutory provisions and avoids any ruling on a federal constitutional issue, it is not subject to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which a straightforward affirmance of the Court of Appeals ruling on the merits would have been.

Most of the amicus briefs were filed by conservative and/or religious groups seeking affirmance of the Court of Appeals on the merits, and it is clear that the amici were determined to make this a major “culture wars” case in the battle against LGBTQ rights.  One amicus brief was filed on behalf of ten states that do not forbid sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in their state civil rights laws.  There were also amicus briefs from progressive groups (including progressive religious groups) urging the court to reverse the Court of Appeals on the merits.  The only LGBT-specific organizational brief was filed by Lambda Legal.

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Supreme Court Denies Review in Two LGBT-Related Cases on First Day of New Term

The Supreme Court announced on October 7 that it was denying review in two LGBT-related cases: Frank G. v. Joseph P. & Renee P.F., No. 18-1431, a New York case, and Calgaro v. St. Louis County, No. 19-127, a Minnesota case from the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.  The more significant decision is to deny review in the Frank G. case.

In Frank G., 79 N.Y.S.3d 45 (N.Y. App. Div. 2018), the New York 2nd Department Appellate Division upheld a decision by an Orange County Family Court judge to award custody of twin boys to the former same-sex partner of the children’s biological father, and the New York Court of Appeals denied review.

The children’s biological mother, Renee, is the sister of Joseph P., the former same-sex partner.  Frank G., the biological father, had moved with the children to Florida without notifying Joseph P., who had a closely-bonded relationship with the children even though the fathers were no longer living together.  Joseph P. sued to be appointed a guardian of the children, at a time when the Court of Appeals had not yet recognized the parental status of same-sex partners.

After the Court of Appeals ruled in Brooke S.B. v. Elizabeth A.C.C., 61 N.E.3d 488 (2016), that same-sex co-parents could be recognized as having the same parental rights and standing as biological or adoptive parents in certain circumstances, even if they were not married to the biological parent or had not adopted the children, Joseph P. amended his complaint to seek custody.

Orange County Family Court Judge Lori Currier Woods evaluated all the relevant circumstances and decided that the children’s best interest would be served by awarding custody to Joseph P. and according visitation rights to Frank G.   She did not find that Frank G. was “unfit”, but instead placed both fathers on equal standing and then considered which one would provide the preferable home for the twins.  Relying on Brooke S.B., the Appellate Division affirmed.  Frank G. tried to appeal this ruling to the Court of Appeals, arguing that his Due Process rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution were violated by the lower courts’ opinion, but the Court of Appeals refused to hear his appeal.

In past cases, the Supreme Court has recognized as a fundamental right the liberty interest of biological parents in the care and raising of their children.  In his Petition to the Supreme Court, Frank G. argued that this liberty interest was violated when he was deprived of custody in favor of a co-parent based on a “best interest of the children” analysis without any finding that he was unfit or unqualified to have custody.

The Petition argued to the Supreme Court that the case had national significance and needed a Supreme Court ruling, because various state courts have disagreed about how to handle parental custody claims by unmarried same-sex partners of biological or adoptive parents.  Since the Supreme Court is most likely to grant review in a case that presents important constitutional questions about which lower courts are divided, it seemed highly likely that the Court might decide to review this case.  The likelihood was enhanced because Frank’s petition was filed by Gene Schaerr, a former clerk of Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice Antonin Scalia and a prominent anti-LGBT lawyer and partner in a Washington, D.C., firm that frequently litigates in the Supreme Court.  Furthermore, several amicus briefs were filed in support of the Petition, urging the Court to reaffirm the traditional doctrine that biological parents who are not found to be “unfit” always have custodial preference over persons who are not related to their children by biology or adoption.

Had the court taken this case, the current conservative majority might abrogate Brooke S.B. and similar decisions from other states that have been important precedents according equal standing to same-sex parents.  The denial of review means the law can continue to develop in the lower courts for now without intervention by the Supreme Court, which is at least a temporary victory for LGBT rights advocates.

The denial of review in the other case, Calgaro v. St. Louis County, 919 F.3d 1054 (8th Cir. 2019), was expected, since the conservative 8th Circuit found no merit to Anmarie Calgaro’s claim that she should be entitled to damages from individuals and institutions that had assisted her child, a transgender girl, when she decided to leave her unsupportive home before she had reached age 18 in order to transition.  Calgaro argued unsuccessfully in the federal district court in Minnesota and before the 8th Circuit that her constitutional rights as a mother were violated when the county and its public health director, the local school district and high school principal, and other private institutions respected her child’s wishes and kept Anmarie in the dark about where her child was living.  She also objected to being excluded from decisions about her child’s transition.

Of course, the case raises important issues, but the Supreme Court has shown great reluctance to get involved with cases that are effectively moot, and in this case E.J.K., the child in question, has long passed the age of 18, thus achieving adult status under Minnesota law and being entitled to emancipate herself from control by her parent.  Calgaro is represented by the Thomas More Society, a Catholic lawyers group that generally focuses on religious free exercise cases, occasionally in opposition to LGBT rights.  E.J.K. is represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights.  Two conservative groups filed amicus briefs urging the Court to take the case.

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Federal Judge Voids Tampa Ban on Conversion Therapy

U.S. District Judge William F. Jung ruled on October 4 in Vazzo v. City of Tampa, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 172734, 2019 WL 4919302 (M.D. Fla.), that the state of Florida’s pervasive regulation of professional health care deprives the city of Tampa from the authority to impose sanctions on licensed health care workers who perform “conversion therapy” on minors.

Jung’s ruling was a startling departure from the way most courts have responded to challenges against laws cracking down on the charlatans who engage in this discredited practice.  Several federal courts, including some courts of appeals, have rejected challenges based on the 1st and 14th Amendments, but those cases mainly involved state laws.  Although the challengers in the Tampa case – Robert L. Vazzo, David Pickup, and Soli Deo Gloria International, Inc. – made those same constitutional arguments, which provided the basis for their case to be in federal court, Judge Jung resolved the case on a state law basis that appeared to be a mere make-weight in the original Complaint.

Tampa passed its ordinance in April 2017.  It bans “therapy” within the City by medical doctors and mental health professionals intended to assist minors to avoid being gay or transgender.  The ordinance uses the term “conversion therapy,” but the practice is also sometimes referred to as “sexual orientation change efforts” or SOCE.  The ordinance cites numerous professional studies discrediting SOCE and contending that it may be harmful to minors, and also cites decisions by the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 3rd and 9th Circuits upholding New Jersey and California statutes making the performance of this “therapy” a violation of licensing standards that could subject the practitioners to penalties and possible loss of licensure.  A New Jersey state court has also condemned the practice under that state’s consumer fraud statute.

The Tampa City Council stated its intention to protect minors from being subjected to a potentially harmful practice, premised on its authority to exercise its police power for the public safety, health and welfare.  Enforcement was assigned to the same city employees who enforce other standards and codes.

Vazzo, a marriage and family therapist licensed in Florida, practices SOCE on minors, claiming that his treatment may help minors “reduce or eliminate same-sex sexual attractions, behaviors or identity,” and claiming that his therapy is rendered entirely in speech.  He also claimed that all clients initiate SOCE counseling by giving informed consent; a questionable assertion when they are minors who, under the law, are recognized as having only limited capacity to give legal consent to a variety of things.  As a practical matter, this normally involves parents who want to “cure” their children from being gay or trans and give consent to the SOCE practitioner on their children’s behalf.

Co-plaintiff David Pickup was the lead plaintiff in a case challenging California’s state law ban on SOCE, and claims in this case that he had intended to get Florida certification and treat patients in Tampa.  The other plaintiff is an organization that refers individuals, including minors, for SOCE treatment.

Jung invoked a doctrine called “implied preemption.”  When a state pervasively regulates a particular activity, it may be found to have “occupied the field” of regulating that activity, thus depriving local governments of doing the same, particularly if the local regulation may conflict in some way with the state regulation or interfere with the state’s ability effectively to regulate.  By contrast, the doctrine of “express preemption” applies to situations where the state constitution or a state law or regulation explicitly reserves sole authority over a particular subject to the state.  Thus, application of implied preemption requires the court to provide a justification for finding that the local government should not be allowed to regulate a particular activity, whereas “express preemption” relies on a clear statement by the legislature that its regulation of a field is exclusive.

Analyzing implied preemption in this case, Judge Jung wrote, “There is no grant of authority by the Florida legislature to municipalities to substantively regulate healthcare treatment and discipline.  The State, not localities, occupies this field. . .  Here, there is nothing local or unique to Tampa about SOCE that would suggest the statewide, uniform medical regulation regime should vary because of Tampa’s peculiarities, and should vary across the State, from town to town and from county to county. The matter legislated against – SOCE – is statewide, not Tampa-specific.  And, a uniform and statewide system of healthcare treatment and practitioner discipline already exists, for sound reasons.  Implied preemption is a disfavored remedy because cities have broad powers to address municipal concerns.  But substantive regulation of psychotherapy is a State, not a municipal concern.”

The judge also suggested that the Tampa Ordinance “encroaches upon” five state-mandated areas.

First, he found that Florida’s constitution protects a broad right of privacy against government intrusions, which “suggests that government should stay out of the therapy room.”

Second, he notes that Florida court cases recognize that “with very few exceptions, parents are responsible for selecting the manner of medical treatment received by their children,” and the ordinance interferes with the right of parents to select SOCE for their children.

Third, he points to the state’s statutory “Patient Bill of Rights,” which protects a patient’s right to select the course of treatment that he or she deems best.  He finds that “the Tampa Ordinance enters this area at odds with this portion of the Florida statutory scheme.”

Fourth, he notes a provision of the Florida law regulating health care which states, as “legislative intent,” that “citizens be able to make informed choices for any type of health care they deem to be an effective option for treating human disease, pain, injury, deformity, or other physical or mental condition,” and that “the health care practitioner may, in his or her discretion and without restriction, recommend any mode or treatment that is, in his or her judgment, in the best interest of the patience in accordance with the provisions of his or her license.”  He asserts that the Tampa Ordinance seeks to place a restriction where state law says there should be none.

Fifth, he asserts that the Tampa Ordinance interferes with the state’s statutory doctrine of informed consent.  Florida law allows health care workers to perform procedures with the informed consent of their patients, by protecting doctors against liability for performing procedures with a patient’s informed consent “so long as the substantial risks and hazards are fully disclosed and accepted.”  He finds that the Tampa Ordinance “simply ignores this well-known and broad Florida concept of informed consent,” subjecting health care practitioners to potential sanctions if they perform SOCE with the full informed consent of their patients.

In effect, he finds, if opponents of SOCE want to see the government restrict health care practitioners from engaging in this practice, they have to convince the medical boards that control the licensing practice that they should condemn SOCE as a violation of standards, or get the legislature to ban the practice.  “Tampa’s divergent standard for punishing errant mental health therapy is relevant in the preemption analysis because it creates a danger of conflict with an area pervasively regulated, for which the Legislature has stated a policy of statewide uniformity,” he concluded, noting particularly the detailed regulations and educational requirements for those seeking to hold the kind of licensing certification that Vazzo has earned.

Judge Jung, treading in controversial waters, goes on to challenge the competency of the Tampa City Council to set standards for medical practice.  “With due respect for the citizen legislators on the Tampa City Council, none are skilled in mental health issues,” he wrote, “nor are any of the City’s code enforcement personnel.  In contrast the Florida Department of Health, with its skilled adjudicatory bodies, is equipped to address this dynamic area of psychotherapy.”  Then he challenges the “certitude” of the City Council’s factual findings by cherry picking isolated statements from statements by the city’s expert witnesses in this case that might be used to impugn some of the conclusions about SOCE and its effects.  Asserting that “the field of gender expression is especially complex,” he suggests that it is best left to the state regulators.

Having decided the case entirely on preemption grounds, Judge Jung expressed no view regarding the constitutional arguments under the 1st and 14th Amendments.  Those arguments have been mainly rejected by the courts, although some uncertainty has been injecting into this field by comments made by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas last year in an unrelated case, in which he castigated the concept of “professional speech” and cited with disdain the 3rd and 9th Circuit decisions mentioned above for having used that concept to analyze the 1st Amendment free speech issues.

Ironically, at the same time as Judge Jung was rendering his decision, rulings rejecting challenges to anti-conversion therapy laws passed by two other local Florida governments are on appeal before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Florida legislature and state house, fully controlled by Republicans, are not going to address this issue, which is why Florida has been a hotbed of local legislative activity.  It will be interesting to see whether the preemption issue is raised by the 11th Circuit in considering the appeals in those cases, and whether the City of Tampa – which has an out lesbian mayor and a very political active LGBTQ community – will seek to appeal this ruling.

Vazzo and his co-plaintiffs are represented by lawyers from Liberty Counsel, an advocacy legal organization that seeks to deny liberty to LGBTQ people whenever possible.

Judge Jung, appointed by President Donald Trump, has been on the bench for barely a year.

 

 

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Texas Federal Court Vacates Transgender Protection under Obamacare

Reed O’Connor, a federal trial judge in the Northern District of Texas, ruled on October 15 in Franciscan Alliance v. Azar, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177871, 2019 WL 5157100, that the Obama Administration’s regulation providing that the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a/k/a “Obamacare”) prohibits health care providers and institutions from discriminating against patients because of “gender identity” or “termination of pregnancy” is invalid.  The judge “vacated” the rule, effectively ordering the government not to enforce it, although he declined to issue an injunction to that effect.

Government agencies and courts in several states have relied on the regulation, “Nondiscrimination in Health Programs & Activities,” 45 C.F.R. Sec. 92, in several important cases, ruling, for example, that state Medicaid programs and the insurance coverage that states provide to their employees had to provide coverage for medically necessary gender transition treatment.  The regulation has also been invoked in lawsuits challenging the refusal of private employers to cover such treatment, and theoretically also could be invoked to challenge refusals by health care providers to perform abortions, although it is uncertain whether it could apply to such refusals.

O’Connor’s ruling was not a real surprise, since he issued a “nationwide” preliminary injunction barring the government from enforcing the regulation on December 31, 2016, just as it was set to go into effect on January 1, 2017.  Consequently, it is uncertain how federal enforcement proceedings would have fared in the courts.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) formally adopted the regulation on May 16, 2016, as an official interpretation of the ACA’s anti-discrimination language, which mentions neither gender identity nor abortions.  Unlike most federal anti-discrimination statutes that list the prohibited grounds of discrimination, the ACA instead listed four other federal anti-discrimination laws, and provided in Section 1557 that “an individual shall not, on the grounds prohibited under” the listed statutes, “be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under, any health program or activity, any part of which is receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The statutes listed were Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs that received federal funds, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funds, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits discrimination against people aged 40 or older by companies that employ 20 or more people, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits unjustified discrimination against people with disabilities by programs that receive federal funding.  HHS interpreted Title IX’s sex discrimination ban to include discrimination against an individual because of their “gender identity” or “termination of a pregnancy” in the context of the ACA.

Franciscan Alliance, an operator of faith-based health care institutions, and two other private sector plaintiffs, joined together with eight states to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Wichita Falls, Texas, shortly after the regulation was published, challenging HHS’s adoption of the regulation under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  Franciscan Alliance specifically alleged that providing gender transition treatment violated its religious beliefs, and that the regulation would require them to perform abortions, also against their religious beliefs. The state plaintiffs, as well as Franciscan Alliance, argued that the regulation was not based on a legitimate interpretation of the discrimination prohibited by Title IX. They also raised constitutional arguments that the court didn’t have to address, since it found the regulation to be invalid under these two federal statutes.

Concerned that the new regulations might be struck down, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas (ACLU) and River City Gender Alliance (RCGA) filed motions in September 2106 to intervene as parties to help defend the regulation.  Judge O’Connor reserved judgment on this motion pending the filing of answer to the complaint by the federal government, but allowed ACLU and RCGA to participate as amicus parties and file briefs on the pending preliminary injunction motion.

Judge O’Connor developed a reputation during the Obama Administration for his willingness to issue nationwide preliminary injunctions against Obama Administration initiatives, usually at the behest of conservative state governments or faith-based organizations.  Because he is the only judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas who is assigned to sit several days a month in the satellite courthouse in Wichita Falls, Texas, a small city with a population of about 100,000 (roughly the size of South Bend, Indiana, for example), Judge O’Connor’s judicial propensities help to explain why several cases of national importance were filed by conservative opponents of the Obama Administration in that rather obscure courthouse.  Lawyers call this “forum shopping” — seeking out a particular court or judge because they are highly likely to rule in favor of the plaintiffs based on their past performance.

While this litigation was going on, Judge O’Connor became embroiled in a Title IX lawsuit brought by states challenging the Obama Administration’s interpretation guidance to school districts concerning their obligations to transgender students.  In that litigation, he found that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their argument that Title IX did not apply to gender identity discrimination, issuing a nation-wide preliminary injunction barring the Education Department from requiring school districts to refrain from discriminating against transgender students.

When he issued his preliminary injunction in this case, O’Connor concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in showing that the ban on sex discrimination in Title IX did not extend to gender identity discrimination (as he held in the schools case), and that failing to incorporate religious exemption language from Title IX in the regulation violated the intent of Congress in its method of specifying prohibited grounds for discrimination under the ACA.  He also ruled that it was likely that attempts by the  government to enforce the regulation against faith-based health care providers would burden their free exercise of religion without sufficient justification under RFRA.  If the agency exceeded its statutory authority, its adoption of the regulation would violate the APA.

Just weeks after O’Connor issued his preliminary injunction, Donald Trump took office and appointed new leadership for the various federal agencies that interpret and enforce the federal anti-discrimination statutes.   On May 2, 2017, the new leadership at HHS filed a motion asking the court to “remand” the challenged regulation back to the agency, because the new administration was going to be reviewing all of the Obama Administration’s regulatory actions and might make the case “moot” by rescinding the regulation.  Judge O’Connor granted that motion on July 10, 2017, and said he would “stay” further proceedings in the case while HHS decided whether to revoke the regulation.

Surprisingly, in light of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ memorandum from the fall of 2017 opining that federal laws banning sex discrimination do not ban gender identity discrimination, as well as the Trump Administration’s repeatedly articulated hostility toward abortion, HHS has not yet undertaken the formal steps necessary under the APA to repeal or amend the challenged regulation, and evidently Judge O’Connor finally lost patience and decided to issue a ruling on the merits.  Having received briefing by the parties on the legal questions involved, he determined that he could render a ruling on the government’s motion for summary judgment, producing the decision published on October 15.

He referred back to his earlier preliminary injunction ruling, doubling down on his conclusion that when Congress passed Title IX in 1972, it knew that the EEOC and federal courts had been rejecting transgender individuals’ sex discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, so as of 1972 Congress would believe that passing a new federal statute outlawing sex discrimination would not outlaw discrimination because of gender identity.

Getting further into the RFRA analysis, he found that the government does have a compelling interest in prohibiting discrimination in health care, but that the regulation did not impose the “least restrictive alternative” as required by that statute. Because there are non-faith based health care providers who will provide gender transition treatment and abortions, he wrote, it is not necessary to burden faith-based providers in order to make it possible for individuals to get those treatments.  They can just go elsewhere.

Thus, Judge O’Connor extended his earlier opinion to hold, as a final ruling on the merits, that the inclusion of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” in the regulation exceeded the interpretive authority of HHS in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, and that enforcement of those provisions against faith-based health care providers would violate their rights under RFRA.

Judge O’Connor found that because the defendants (the Trump Administration) was no longer affirmatively defending the regulation, ACLU and RGCA were entitled as of right to intervene as co-defendants in order to provide a defense. This was an important step, since only an actual party can appeal a decision. However, Judge O’Connor pointed out that the intervenors will have to establish individual standing to do so if they want to take this case to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The district court could just rely on their allegations that they have members who would be adversely affected by the regulation being struck down in order to grant their intervention motion, but their standing to appeal the ruling might be challenged in the 5th Circuit which, for example, has vacated a ruling against Mississippi’s draconian anti-LGBT statute on grounds that the organizational plaintiffs did not have “standing” to challenge the law before it had gone into effect.

Judge O’Connor did not strike down the regulation in full, merely holding that the inclusion of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” was not authorized by the statute and thus that those portions of the regulation are “vacated.”  He refrained from issuing a nationwide injunction, presumably because the defendant – formally, the Trump Administration – is clearly going to comply, since it is no longer arguing that the regulation is lawful in light of the Sessions memorandum and the position it is arguing in the Harris Funeral Homes case at the Supreme Court.

O’Connor’s action immediately raises the question whether his ruling is binding outside the Northern District of Texas.  Striking down the “unlawful” portions presumably does not just mean for purposes of one federal district.  Normally, the government would appeal such a ruling, but in this case, it seems unlikely that HHS or the Justice Department is going to appeal this ruling, which leaves that determination up to the ACLU of Texas and RGCA, in light of all the circumstances, including a national election just a year from now.

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Federal Court Issues Preliminary Injunction against Enforcement of New York City Adult Establishment Zoning Regulations

Continuing litigation efforts that date back a quarter of a century, a group of “gentlemen’s cabarets” (which the court alternatively describes as “strip clubs”) and adult bookstores located in Manhattan have brought suit to challenge the constitutionality of 2001 Amendments to the NYC Zoning Resolution as applied to “adult establishments.”  Numerous prior assaults on this measure, first passed during the Giuliani Administration in an attempt by the City to sharply reduce the number of adult establishments and to relocate them away from residential districts or close proximity to religious institutions, schools and other places where minors tend to congregate, were largely unsuccessful once they proceeded to the appellate level.  Surprisingly, however, given the City’s earnest attempts to beat back all challenges, U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III relates that the City has not actively enforced the Resolution for eighteen years – effectively since the end of the Giuliani Administration.  Mayors Bloomberg and De Blasio turned their attentions elsewhere.  But the plaintiffs are concerned with the measure still on the books and the possibility it might be enforced against them in the future – thus this lawsuit.  725 Eatery Corp. d/b/a “Lace” v. City of New York, 2019 WL 4744218, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 169873 (S.D.N.Y., Sept. 30, 2019).

In this ruling, Judge Pauley grants the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the measure while the litigation goes forward on the merits.  This is in some sense largely symbolic, in light of the City’s prolonged failure to enforce the measure.

The list of counsel accompanying the opinion goes on for two pages, and the judge mentions that in connection with the pending motions, “the parties have offered a Homeric record of affidavits, documentary evidence, and stipulations.”  Most significant among the objections, perhaps, is that the Resolution was purportedly justified by a 1995 study of ‘secondary effects’ attributable to the presence of adult establishments, especially when several were located close together.  The reality is that, as a result of early enforcement efforts during the Giuliani Administration together with economic, residential and commercial development activity in the City over the past twenty years, the studies are clearly out-of-date and no longer easily support the Council’s conclusion that the rather drastic restrictions on the siting of adult establishments is still necessary in terms of public order and impact on property values.  Enforcement under Giuliani reduced the number of adult establishments and led to many of them significantly modifying their activities to try to avoid being labeled as adult establishments.

As Judge Pauley explains: “Tracing its origins to the City’s early 1990s crusade against adult entertainment businesses, this litigation has been ensnared in a time warp for a quarter century.  During that interval, related challenges to the City’s Zoning Resolution have sojourned through various levels of the state and federal courts.”  A major portion of the opinion is devoted to reciting in great detail the history of that litigation, from the initial 1995 enactment through the consequential 2001 amendments and a series of judicial decisions which culminated in a 2017 ruling by the New York Court of Appeals holding that the most recent version of the measure is constitutional, which was stayed until the Supreme Court denied review early in 2018.  For the People Theatres of N.Y., Inc. v. City of New York, 29 N.Y.3d 340, 57 N.Y.S.2d 69, 79 N.E.3d 461 (N.Y. 2017).

This new law suit was brought by Manhattan establishments that would not be considered “adult establishments” under the 1995 Regulation (which was construed by the courts to exempt establishments that devoted less than 40% of their space or stock to adult uses) but would be considered “adult establishments” under the 2001 amendments (which broadened coverage to deal with alleged “sham” reconfigurations that the City claimed had resulted in adult establishments continuing to operate while evading coverage).  In this case, the plaintiffs alleged deprivations of their 1st and 14th Amendment rights, arguing that if the 2001 Amendment were actively enforced, they “would decimate – and have already dramatically reduced – adult-oriented expression.”  The plaintiffs pointed out, restricting themselves to Manhattan numbers, that “the fifty-seven adult eating or drinking establishments existing at the time the City adopted the 2001 Amendments have now been culled to as few as twenty such establishments.  And for their part, the bookstore plaintiffs claim that of the roughly forty adult bookstores with booths that existed at the time of the 2001 Amendments, only twenty to twenty-five bookstores currently exist.”  They also pointed out that of these bookstores, virtually none are located in “permissible areas” under the 2001 Amendments.  The bookstore plaintiffs also pointed out that if the City were to actively enforce the 2001 rules, there would be very few places in the City, much less Manhattan, where such businesses could operate, essentially reduced to “undeveloped areas unsuitable for retail commercial enterprises, such as areas designated for amusement parks or heavy industry or areas containing toxic waste.”  They also noted yet again that the study of “secondary effects” conducted by the City prior to enactment of the 1995 measure has never been updated, never been validated in light of the 40% rule, and had addressed a Cityscape radically different from what exists today.

In deciding whether to grant a preliminary injunction – and noting that the City is not actively enforcing the current regulations – the court addressed several crucial factors: whether enforcement would inflict an irreparable injury on the plaintiffs, the likelihood the plaintiffs would succeed on their constitutional arguments, the balance of hardship on the plaintiffs and the City, and the Public Interest.

First, Judge Pauley concluded, “assuming that the 2001 Amendments – which purportedly impose a direct limitation on speech – violate the Constitution, Plaintiffs have demonstrated irreparable harm.”  This conclusion was based on many court opinions finding that monetary damages are insufficient to compensate somebody for a loss of their constitutional rights.

Turning to likelihood of success on the merits, the judge found that the weak link in the defendants’ opposition was the reduction of the number of locations where adult establishments could operate if the 2001 Regulations were enforced.  Precedents require that any regulation of adult uses must, because of its impact on freedom of speech, leave “reasonable alternative channels” for the speech to take place and be heard.  In other words, the zoning rules must allow enough appropriate locations so that adult businesses can operate and members of the public can access their goods and services.  “On this preliminary record,” wrote Pauley, “this Court is skeptical that the 2001 Amendments leave open sufficient alternative avenues of communication.  With respect to the outer boroughs, the DCP [Department of Consumer Protection] generated a map for each borough identifying the areas allowing and prohibiting adult establishments as of October 31, 2019. . . .  Compared to the maps the DCP created in connection with the 1995 Regulations, the 2019 maps appear to offer slightly less available space for adult entertainment.  But the City’s maps do not seem to indicate how the amount of available land would be affected by the requirement that adult establishments be located at least 500 feet from sensitive receptors or other adult establishments.”  After a critical analysis of the evidence presented, Pauley concluded that “plaintiffs have sufficiently demonstrated at this stage that the enforcement of the 2001 Amendments will deny them adequate alternative channels to offer their adult expression.”

Finally, the court determined “that the balance of hardships weighs in favor of Plaintiffs, and the issuance of preliminary injunctive relief would not disserve the public interest.”  The plaintiffs submitted affidavits showing that enforcement would cause them to lose their businesses, breaching contracts and leases, having to lay off employees, and suffering the financial and time costs of relocation.  Furthermore, since the City has not been actively enforcing these rules for eighteen years, according to the court, a preliminary injunction would not result in any harm to the City.  “While this Court credits Defendants’ contention that the 2001 Amendments are designed to abate the pernicious secondary effects of adult establishments,” wrote Pauley, “it also recognizes that the City ‘does not have an interest in the enforcement of an unconstitutional law.’”

Pauley’s concluding remarks leave little doubt about his skepticism about the further need for the adult zoning rules as last amended in 2001.  “The adult-use regulations that are the subject of these now-revived constitutional challenges are a throwback to a bygone era,” he wrote.  “The City’s landscape has transformed dramatically since Defendants last studied the secondary effects of adult establishments twenty-five years ago.  As Proust might say, the ‘reality that [the City] had known no longer existed,’ and ‘houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years,’” quoting from Remembrance of Things Past (1913).  But, the judge was careful to caution that this was not a final ruling on the merits, and that issuing the preliminary injunction “says nothing about whether Plaintiffs will in fact succeed on the merits of their claims.” He set a status conference for October 31, and directed the parties to file a “joint status report” by October 24 “detailing their respective positions on how to proceed with the balance of this action.”  He also directed that they confer on a discover plan as the case moves forward.  Of course, in light of the passage of time and the changes in the City, what would make sense would be for the City to negotiate a settlement that would involve substantial revisions to the adult-use zoning provisions to reflect the changed situation.

The number of law firms with a piece of this case is altogether too long to list here.

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