New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Federal District Judge Issues Injunction Against Tennessee Bathroom Warning-Sign Law

In May, Tennessee enacted a law intended to require operators of facilities with public restrooms who allow transgender people to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity to post a vividly colored large notice at the entrance to the restroom warning people about that policy.  The law went into effect on July 1.  On July 9, U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger issued a preliminary injunction banning its enforcement while a lawsuit challenges its constitutionality in Bongo Productions v. Lawrence, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 128262 (M.D. Tenn., July 9, 2021).

Despite the lack of any reported incidents in Tennessee of problems due to transgender peoples’ public restroom usage, the Republican-controlled legislature, firmly enlisted in the current “red state” war against transgender people, passed H.B. 1182/S.B. 1224, which amends the state’s zoning laws regulating public property, to provide that any “public or private entity or business that operates a building or facility open to the general public and that, as a matter of formal or informal policy, allows a member of either biological sex to use any public restroom within the building or facility shall post notice of the policy at the entrance of each public restroom in the building or facility.”

The law requires that the notice be posted “in a manner that is easily visible to a person entering the public restroom” and must be “at least eight inches wide and six inches tall” with a red and yellow color scheme designed to attract notice, and must use the precise wording specified in the statute, with its reference to “biological sex.”

The ACLU represents Bongo Productions, a Nashville company that operates several coffeehouses and restaurants, one of which has a particular LGBT clientele and which employs several transgender people, and Sanctuary Performing Arts, which is described as “a performing arts venue, community center and safe haven located in Chattanooga” which was “founded by member of the transgender community” and which intends to operate a full-service café and thus will come under the requirements of the new law.  Both Bongo and Sanctuary already provide multi-user restrooms.  Under the zoning laws long in effect prior to the present controversy, any multiple-user restrooms have to be labeled for men or for women by words or symbols.  Sanctuary has not labeled their restrooms by gender, but will be required to do so once they open the full-service café.

The owners of these facilities argued that the new law unconstitutionally compels them to post signs and communicate messages that they object to and that many of their customers will object to.  They presented expert testimony on the unscientific and ambiguous terminology of the statute, with its reference to “biological sex,” which was sufficient to persuade Judge Trauger, who devoted several paragraphs of her opinion to the testimony of a professor from Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Dr. Shayne Sebold Taylor, who explained the complexities of human sexuality.  What seemed to most impress Judge Trauger was the evidence that asking a transgender man who is presenting as a man to use the women’s room or a transgender woman who is presenting as a woman to use the men’s room was likely to cause quite a commotion, exactly the kind of social disruption that the proponents of the legislation claim to be trying to forestall by the prescribed notices.

In order to get a preliminary injunction, plaintiffs have to show that they have standing to sue, that the controversy is ripe for judicial resolution, that they have a reasonable probability of winning their case on the merits, that they will suffer irreparable injury if the act is enforced and the government will not suffer irreparable injury if enforcement is blocked while the case is being litigated.

Judge Trauger was convinced that all the criteria were met, despite disingenuous arguments by the lawyers for the public officials who are being sued, the fire marshalls in charge of Codes enforcement and local district attorneys who would be responsible for enforcement activity.

Her opinion is really a delight to read.  For example, on the issue of standing, they argued that nobody had brought an enforcement action against the plaintiffs, and one of the local D.A.’s even told the press that he didn’t intend to enforce the statute.  “This might be quite a different case if each of the defendant officials had given the court a meaningful reason to expect that he will not enforce the Act,” she wrote.  “The defendants, however, seek to have it both ways – to pretend that no one knows how the Act will be enforced, despite the fact that, of course, they know, because they will be among the ones doing the enforcing, and they are simply keeping their plans to themselves.”  In a footnote, she noted that a Republican legislator had sought an opinion from the state’s attorney general about whether D.A. Funk could be subjected to disciplinary action or removal “for his apparent disinclination to enforce the Act” after news reports appeared stating that he would not enforce it.

As to the merits of the case, since the statute compels business owners to post signs with which they disagree, this is a content-based regulation of speech subject to strict scrutiny, which means the statute is presumed unconstitutional unless the state has a compelling interest and the law is narrowly tailored to avoid unnecessarily abridging freedom of speech.

Judge Trauger wrote that “there is simply no basis whatsoever for concluding that the Act is narrowly tailored to serve any compelling governmental purpose.  Although at least one key supporter of the Act in the General Assembly justified its requirements in relation to supposed risks of sexual assault and rape, there is (1) no evidence, in either the legislative record or the record in this case, that there is any problem of individuals’ abusing private bathroom policies intended to accommodate transgender and intersex individuals for that purpose and (2) no reason to think that, if such a problem existed, the mandated signs would address it.”

Even if there was a legitimate interest to “let patrons of a business know its bathroom policies – which the court finds doubtful – then that purpose could still be served by simply requiring businesses to disclose that information when asked or to keep it filed away somewhere accessible,” wrote the judge.  “There would certainly be no need to dictate the precise language required for the notice, the precise size and location of the disclosure, or that the sign have a red-and-yellow, warning-sign color scheme, as if to say: ‘Look Out: Dangerous Gender Expressions Ahead,’” concluding that there is “no plausible argument that this law would come anywhere close to surviving strict scrutiny.”

She also rejected the argument that the sign, which does not use the terms transgender or gender identity, was merely communicating non-controversial information.  “Courts, when considering First Amendment challenges, are permitted to exercise ordinary common sense to evaluate the content of a message in context to consider its full meaning, rather than simply robotically reading the message’s text for plausible deniability,” she wrote, asserting that “of course the signs required by the Act are statements about the nature of sex and gender and the role of transgender individuals in society.  Justice is blind, but the court does not have to play dumb.”

“On the current record,” wrote the judge, “the only way to argue that the message mandated by the Act is uncontroversial is to argue that the plaintiffs are simply lying about both the social realities they have observed and their own disagreement with the required message.  But the court sees no evidence whatsoever that the plaintiffs have failed to tell the truth about that or anything else.  To the contrary, the legislative history of the Act shows that it was devised, quite consciously and explicitly, as a direct response to social and political trends involving transgender people.  It is only now, in the context of litigation, that officials of the State suggest otherwise.”

The court concluded that the plaintiffs would suffer irreparable injury – a violation of their constitutional rights and potential harm to their businesses and the community they serve – if the public officials are free to enforce the statute.  “Because the plaintiffs’ evidence shows that the Act would be an invasion on private communities’ power to define themselves and their norms in accordance with their own consciences, the plaintiffs have more than carried their burden of showing that irreparable harm would occur absent an injunction.”  And, given the patent unconstitutionality of the statute, an injunction would not irreparably harm the state or damage the public interest.  “No legislature can enact a law it lacks the power to enact,” wrote Trager, “and the constraints on Tennessee’s power that come along with the U.S. Constitution were voluntarily assumed by the State of Tennessee by virtue of its entry into the federal system.”

She labelled the law a “brazen violation” of the concept that public officials cannot “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”  She ordered defendants to “take no actions to enforce House Bill 1182/Senate Bill 1224.

Those who followed the campaign for marriage equality some years ago may remember that it was Judge Trauger, who was appointed to the Court by President Bill Clinton, who issued an order in 2014 that the state must recognize the same-sex marriage performed out of state for plaintiffs in an important marriage equality case.  She correctly predicted in her opinion then that the Supreme Court would eventually recognize a constitutional right to marry for same-sex couples.

 

 

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Music Director Barred from Suing Catholic Church For Hostile Environment Harassment Under Anti-Discrimination Laws

A ten-judge bench of the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled on July 9 by a vote of 7-3 that the religion clauses of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution give churches total immunity from hostile environment claims by their ministerial employees.  Demkovich v. St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 20410, 2021 WL 2880232 (7th Cir. en banc).

Rejecting a decision by a three-judge panel of the court that Sandor Demkovich, the gay former Music and Choir Director and Organist at St. Andrew the Apostle Parish in Calumet City, Illinois, could bring a hostile environment claim against the church under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, the en banc court held that allowing such claims would violate the religious autonomy of the church protected by the religion clauses of the 1st Amendment.  Judge Michael Brennan, appointed by President Donald Trump, wrote the court’s opinion.

The 7th Circuit is among the most Republican-dominated of the federal appeals courts.  Of the eleven active members of the Court, eight were appointed by Republican presidents (four by Trump).  President Joseph Biden’s first appointee to the court, Judge Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, was only recently confirmed by the Senate and did not participate in this case.  One of President Trump’s appointees recused himself, and a senior (retired) judge appointed by Ronald Reagan, Joel Flaum, who was the dissenter on the three-judge panel, was entitled under 7th Circuit rules to participate.

Judge David Hamilton, appointed by Barack Obama, wrote the panel decision and the dissenting opinion, joined by Judge Ilana Rovner, a moderate appointed by George H. W. Bush in 1992, who was the other member of the three-judge panel majority.   Judge Diane Wood, appointed by Bill Clinton, joined the dissent.

Demkovich was hired in September 2012.  His supervisor was Reverend Jacek Dada, a priest who is the church’s Pastor.  According to Demkovich, who has various physical disabilities, Dada was constantly subjecting him to verbal abuse because of his sexual orientation and his disabilities, adversely affecting his physical and mental health.  In 2014, after Illinois had legislated to allow same-sex marriages, Demkovich let the church know that he planned to marry his same-sex partner.  Dada told him that he had to resign from the church because his marriage would violate Catholic doctrine.  When Demkovich refused to resign, Dada fired him.

Demkovich sued the St. Andrew church and the Archdiocese of Chicago under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming that his discharge was unlawful discrimination because of his sexual orientation and disabilities.  The church moved to dismiss the case, citing the “ministerial exception” under the 1st Amendment, and the district court granted the motion, determining that Demkovich was a “ministerial employee” under the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171.  In Hosanna-Tabor, an ADA case involving a school teacher, the Supreme Court ruled that it would violate the 1st Amendment to allow a ministerial employee to challenge their discharge in a federal court, because religious institutions have an absolute right under the Free Exercise Clause to decide whom to employ as ministers without any interference from the courts.  Under Hosanna-Tabor, the district court’s decision to dismiss Demkovich’s unlawful discharge claims was undoubtedly correct.

Demkovich came back to court with an amended complaint, alleging that he was unlawfully subjected to a hostile environment by Dada, his supervisor, because of his sexual orientation and disabilities.  Again, the church invoked the “ministerial exception” and moved to dismiss. District Judge Edmond E. Chang decided that Hosanna-Tabor, a discharge case, did not necessarily apply to a hostile environment claim, drawing a distinction, as the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had previously done in a similar situation, between tangible and intangible employment actions, finding that the exception applied only to the former.

Judge Chang held that the proper approach in a hostile environment case was to balance the church’s religious freedom concerns with the employee’s statutory anti-discrimination rights, taking into account the nature of the employer’s conduct and the reasons for it.  Based on this “balancing of rights,” Chang dismissed the sexual orientation claim but refused to dismiss the disability claim, distinguishing between hostility that could be motivated by religious doctrine and hostility that had no basis in religious doctrine.  Demkovich v. St. Andrew, 343 F. Supp. 3d 772 (N.D. Ill. 2018).

But Chang then certified a request by the church to have the court of appeals consider the issue before the case went further.  Last summer, the Supreme Court issued another ministerial exception decision, Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru, 140 S. Ct. 2049 (2020), which took a broader view of the definition of a ministerial employee in the context of religious schools. This case also involved two teacher discharges, allegedly in violation of the ADA and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

The three-judge 7th Circuit panel ruled in 2020 that Demkovich should be allowed to litigate both of his hostile environment claims, finding that the reasoning behind Hosanna-Tabor did not require a dismissal in a case such as this, following the lead of the 9th Circuit.  See 973 F. 3d 718 (7th Cir. 2020).  The church then petitioned the 7th Circuit for rehearing en banc.  The 7th Circuit vacated the panel decision, heard arguments before a panel of 10 judges earlier this year, and issued its July 9 decision holding that Judge Chang should have dismissed the case completely.

In his opinion for the court, Judge Brennan, while acknowledging that the Supreme Court’s two precedents, Hosanna-Tabor and Guadalupe, both involved discharges of religious school teachers, found various statements in those decisions that he said could be construed to have embraced more general principles that the courts should not be interfering in any personnel-related disputes between religious institutions and their ministerial employees.  He drew two “principles” from the Supreme Court’s decisions: “The protected interest of a religious organization in its ministers covers the entire employment relationship, including hiring, firing, and supervising in between.  Second, we cannot lose sight of the harms – civil intrusion and excessive entanglement – that the ministerial exception prevents.  Especially in matters of ministerial employment, the First Amendment thus ‘gives special solicitude to the rights of religious organizations,’” quoting from Hosanna-Tabor.

Brennan pointed out that in a hostile environment case, discovery could be wide-ranging, and would involve an inquiry into the reasons why, in this case, the priest in charge was treating the music director – both ministerial employees because of the role they play in the religious life of the church – in a particular way. To the majority of the en banc court, this would raise the specter of judicial interference in matters of religion, regardless whether the claim arose under Title VII or the ADA.  The court found that a central theme of the Supreme Court and lower federal court rulings involving discrimination claims by ministerial employees was that churches must enjoy autonomy in making personnel decisions about their ministerial employees, whether they could be characterized as tangible or intangible actions.

“Demkovich’s hostile work environment claims challenge a religious organization’s independence in its ministerial relationships,” wrote Brennan.  “A judgement against the church would legally recognize that it fostered a discriminatory employment atmosphere for one of its ministers.”  While the employment discrimination statutes have been interpreted to hold employers liable for fostering a discriminatory employment atmosphere, Brennan wrote that the Supreme Court’s ministerial exception cases “teach that ministerial employment is fundamentally different.”  And, he continued, “Just as a religious organization ‘must be free to choose those who will guide it on its way,’ so too must those guides be free to decide how to lead a religious organization on that journey,” once again quoting from the Hosanna-Tabor opinion.

Judge Hamilton’s dissent began by noting that the Supreme Court’s ministerial exception cases all involved discharge decisions, not hostile environment claims, and that federal circuit court and state courts are “split on the question before us,” noting not only the 9th Circuit’s prior rulings, but also several district court decisions.  He insisted that “the majority’s rule draws an odd, arbitrary line in constitutional law,” and argued that “the line between tangible employment actions and hostile environment fits the purposes of the ministerial exception.”

He accused the majority of departing “from a long practice of carefully balancing civil law and religious liberty,” and pointed out the severe consequence of holding that religious employers would be immune from any liability for mistreating their employees under anti-discrimination laws.  “We know that people who exercise authority within churches can be all too human,” he wrote.  “Casebooks and news reports tell us of cases of sexual harassment by ministers, sometimes directed at parishioners, sometimes at non-ministerial employees, and sometimes at other (typically less senior) ministers.  In briefs and oral argument, defendants have acknowledged that a religious employer could be held civilly liable for a supervisor’s criminal or tortious conduct toward a ministerial employee. . .  Such cases would not violate the supervisor’s or the employer’s First Amendment rights.  If criminal or tort cases do not, then it is hard to see why a statutory case based on the same conduct would necessarily violate the First Amendment, whether or not the supervisor claims a religious motive.”

“The hostile environment claims before us present a conflict between two of the highest values in our society and legal system: religious liberty and non-discrimination in employment,” wrote Hamilton.  “The Supreme Court has not answered this question, nor does the First Amendment itself.  Circuits and state courts are divided.  For the reasons explained above and in the panel majority, I submit that the majority’s absolute bar to statutory hostile environment claims by ministerial employees is not necessary to protect religious liberty or to serve the purposes of the ministerial exception.”

The next step for Demkovich could be to file a petition for review with the Supreme Court.  Depending on the details of his factual claims, he might try to pursue a state court tort suit for intentional infliction of emotional distress against Jacek Dada individually, but it is possible that it would be barred by the state statute of limitations, since all the conduct at issue took place in 2012-2014.

 

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Iowa Supreme Court Reverses Gay Workers’ Compensation Commissioner’s Jury Verdict and $1.5 Million Damage Award

Christopher J. Godfrey, an out gay man who served as Iowa’s Workers Compensation Commissioner beginning in 2006, won a jury verdict in 2019 of $1.5 million dollars on claims of sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation by Governor Terry Branstad, Branstad’s legal counsel, and the state government.  The jury found a violation of the state’s statutory ban on sexual orientation discrimination in employment, and a violation of Godfrey’s constitutional due process rights.  But on June 30, the Iowa Supreme Court reversed the jury verdict in Godfrey v. State of Iowa, 2021 WL 2671324, 2021 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 92, finding that the trial judge should have ruled that the defendants, now-former Governor Branstad, his Legal Counsel Brenna Findley, and the State of Iowa were entitled to judgment as a matter of law, and that the judge should not have submitted the case to the jury for decision. Justice Christopher McDonald wrote the opinion for the court.

Godfrey was appointed to a full six-year term as Commissioner of Workers Compensation by Governor Chet Culver, a Democrat, and was confirmed unanimously by the state Senate in 2009.  He was openly gay at the time.  He had previously received interim appointments to that position beginning in 2006 from prior Governor Tom Vilsack, also a Democrat who served as Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama Administration (a position to which he was appointed again this year by President Biden), and Godfrey was reappointed to an interim vacancy as Commissioner by Governor Culver, before receiving the full-term appointment.

In 2010, Republican Terry Branstad, a former Iowa governor who had taken a position as a university president, came out of political retirement and defeated Governor Culver’s bid for reelection.  As was customary with a change of administration, his staff notified all Commissioners who had been appointed by Branstad’s Democratic predecessors to submit letters of resignation, leaving the decision to the governor-elect whether to continue them in office.

Godfrey refused to submit such a letter, telling Governor-Elect Branstad (in the only in-person meeting he ever had with Branstad) that he was appointed and confirmed for a full six-year term and intended to serve the full term through 2015.  Under Iowa law, Governor Branstad could not replace Godfrey on his own initiative, but Godfrey could be removed by the Executive Council of the state, made up of the governor and several other top executive branch officials, for causes specified by statute which were not present in this situation.  So Branstad was stuck with Godfrey if Godfrey would not resign.

Upon taking office, Branstad turned his attention to other matters, but at the end of the legislative session on June 30, 2011, he returned to the Godfrey situation, having received complaints about Godfrey’s perceived “anti-business” stance from the leadership of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry (ABI), the state’s chamber of commerce, who told Branstad that the Commission was creating an adverse climate for business in the state.  In consultation with his staff, Branstad determined that he could reduce Godfrey’s salary, hoping that would induce him to quit.  State law specified a salary range for Commissioners and Godfrey was being paid at the top of the range at $112,070.  Branstad decided to reduce his salary to the bottom of the range, $73,250, if he rejected another request to resign.  Two members of the governor’s staff met with Godfrey to reiterate the governor’s demand for his resignation, which Godfrey refused.  He was then told the Governor had decided to reduce his salary to the bottom of the statutory range.

Godfrey quickly let others know about his salary reduction, contacted the attorney general seeking possible intervention, and contacted legislators to see if they would intervene.  Senator William Dotzler phoned one of Branstad’s aides, saying “you guys might want to consider the action you’re taking on Chris Godfrey.  He is an openly gay man, and that can be an issue down the road.”  When Godfrey announced publicly the next day that he was being subjected to sexual orientation discrimination, Branstad claimed that he, the sole decision-maker in reducing Godfrey’s salary, had not known that Godfrey was gay until the day after the salary reduction was communicated to Godfrey, when Godfrey leveled his public accusation.

Godfrey sued the State, Branstad and other executive branch officials in January 2012, asserting claims under the Iowa Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination because of sexual orientation, and the Iowa Constitution.  Before the case came to trial, various pretrial motions came up to the Supreme Court involving immunity claims by particular state officials and the question whether Godfrey could sue for damages against Branstad and other officials on his constitutional claims.  One question that did not come up in those proceedings was whether the Iowa Civil Rights Act’s ban on employment discrimination and retaliation applied to a state agency commissioner who was appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate for a fixed term.

Much of the focus of the trial, which is described in great detail in Justice McDonald’s opinion, went to the question whether Branstad personally knew that Godfrey was gay when he took action to pressure Godfrey to resign by reducing his salary.  Branstad insisted that he had not known, but evidently the jury did not believe him, relying on testimony from numerous witnesses about how Godfrey’s sexual orientation was known and reported in the press when he was appointed by Vilsack and Culver, was known to the Senators who voted to confirm him (and even came up at one point in a confirmation hearing), was known by the lieutenant governor (now Governor Reynolds since Branstad’s retirement to become Ambassador to China in the Trump Administration), who had actually been introduced to Godfrey’s husband, and was known by members of Branstad’s staff and the staff of the ABI.

Godfrey also put in plenty of evidence about the anti-LGBT stance of the Iowa Republican Party, about the vicious campaign against members of the Iowa Supreme Court who were denied retention by the voters after they had unanimously ruled in favor of same-sex marriage under the state constitution, about the party’s platform in Branstad’s election campaign seeking to amend the constitution to overrule the court’s marriage decision and to amend the Civil Rights Act to remove sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited grounds of discrimination.  There was also substantial evidence, which was not contested by the defendants, about the emotional distress that Godfrey suffered as a result of the pressure campaign to get him to resign.

At the end of the trial, the defendants moved for judgment as a matter of law, but Jasper County District Judge Brad McCall denied the motion.  The jury awarded Godfrey $500,00 in emotional distress damages on his claims for sexual orientation discrimination and retaliation against the state, and $1 million in emotional distress damages against Governor Branstad and one of his aides on Godfrey’s constitutional claims.  The defendants appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The court concluded that the trial record showed no direct evidence that Branstad was personally aware that Godfrey was gay.  Branstad had served as governor before Vilsack.  When he left office, he became president of Des Moines University, an “osteopathic school of medicine,” and, wrote Justice McDonald, “At the time he was hired, Branstad committed to the trustees of the university that he would stay out of and away from politics while serving in the position.”  He claimed that he paid no attention to whom Vilsack or Culver was appointing as Commissioners, and that he was personally unaware of Godfrey until during his campaign to defeat Culver for re-election, when ABI officials first complained to him about Godfrey’s anti-business bias, but that they did not mention that Godfrey was gay.  Indeed, although he was surrounded by people who knew Godfrey was gay, Branstad swore that the first he heard of that was when Godfrey accused him of sexual orientation discrimination after the salary reduction was communicated to Godfrey.

The court decided that all of Godfrey’s evidence on this point was circumstantial, none of it directly showing that Branstad knew Godfrey was gay, and therefore, since Branstad was the sole decision maker on dealing with Godfrey, the case should have been dismissed as a matter of law for lack of evidence of discriminatory motive.  The court also rejected the constitutional due process claim, finding no denial of Godfrey’s procedural due process rights.

Dissenting Justice Brent Appel objected to the court substituting its judgment for that of the jury.  He agreed with the court’s disposition of the constitutional claim, but pointed out that under the Civil Rights Act a plaintiff can win a discrimination case based on circumstantial evidence, and it was up to the jury to weigh all the evidence and decide whether the defendants violated the statute.  Appel conceded that it was possible that a jury could find for Branstad, but taking account of all the evidence, it was also possible that a reasonable jury could decide for Godfrey, and it was inappropriate for an appellate court to make that determination.  Contested questions of fact are supposed to be decided by juries, unless it would be impossible for a reasonable jury to resolve such questions in favor of the plaintiff.  Appel argued that the evidence about the Republican Party’s anti-LGBT stance was relevant to the jury’s determination of the motive for attempting to force Godfrey from his position.

Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justice Matthew McDermott, while also agreeing with the majority as to the ultimate outcome of the case in favor of defendants, argued in an opinion by McDermott that the claims under the Civil Rights Act should have been dismissed on the ground that Godfrey, as an appointed and Senate-confirmed officer of the state government, was not an “employee” within the meaning of the Act, and thus that the Act’s employment discrimination provisions did not apply to him.

Godfrey did not serve out his full term as Commissioner, eventually resigning to take a position in the Obama Administration at the Employees’ Compensation Appeals Board (ECAB), where he continued to serve until January 20, 2021, when he was sworn in to his current position as Director of the Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs in the U.S. Department of Labor.

Godfrey is represented by Roxanne Conlin, Devin Kelly, and Jean Mauss of Roxann Conlin & Associates, Des Moines.

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U.S. Education Department to Publish Official Interpretation of Title IX Covering Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Discrimination

Following up on President Joe Biden’s Executive Orders of January 20 and March 8, 2021, and a March 26 Memorandum by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Education announced on June 16 that it is publishing a “Notice of Interpretation” in the Federal Register confirming that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits educational institutions that received federal funding from discriminating against students “on the basis of sex,” applies to discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity (transgender status).

The announcement came just a year after the Supreme Court interpreted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination “because of sex,” to include discrimination because of sexual orientation or transgender status, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia.  In Bostock, the Court combined cases from the 2nd, 6th and 11th Circuit Courts of Appeals involving two gay men and a transgender woman, and voted 6-3 that any discrimination against an employee because they are gay, lesbian or transgender is necessarily at least in part because of their sex.  President Donald J. Trump’s first appointee to the Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch, wrote the opinion for the Court by assignment from Chief Justice John Roberts, who joined the opinion together with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Although the Bostock decision directly interpreted only Title VII, its reasoning clearly applied to any law that prohibits discrimination “because of sex” or “on the basis of sex,” as the Education Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, Suzanne B. Goldberg, wrote in the Notice issued on June 16.  In his January 20 Executive Order, President Biden directed all Executive Branch agencies to consider the implications of the Bostock decision for their policies and programs, and to apply the reasoning of that decision to the extent it was consistent with purposes of the particular policies and programs.  His March 8 Executive Order explicitly referenced sexual orientation and gender identity in “guaranteeing an educational environment free from discrimination on the basis of sex.”

“After reviewing the text of Title IX and Federal courts’ interpretation of Title IX,” wrote Goldberg, “the Department has concluded that the same clarity [that the Supreme Court found under Title VII] exists for Title IX.  That is, Title IX prohibits recipients of Federal financial assistance from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in their education programs and activities.  The Department has also concluded for the reasons described in this Notice that, to the extent other interpretations may exist, this is the best interpretation of the statute.”

The Notice listed “numerous” lower federal court decisions that were issued over the past year taking this position, including the most recent ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the Gavin Grimm case, concerning a transgender boy who was denied access to restroom facilities at a Virginia high school.  The school board in that case filed a petition seeking Supreme Court review on February 24, which would present the Supreme Court with a ready vehicle to weigh in on this issue if it wants to do so.

Reversing the position taken by the Education Department during the Trump Administration, the Notice announces that the Department will investigate sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination allegations by students.  “This includes allegations of individuals being harassed, disciplined in a discriminatory manner, excluded from, denied equal access to, or subjected to sex stereotyping in academic or extracurricular opportunities and other education programs or activities, denied the benefits of such programs or activities, or otherwise treated differently because of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” wrote Goldberg.  She pointed out that a determination whether Title IX was violated will depend on the facts of individual cases, and of course Title IX applies only to schools that receive federal funds.

In a footnote, Goldberg pointed out that “educational institutions that are controlled by a religious organization are exempt from Title IX to the extent that compliance would not be consistent with the organization’s religious tenets,” citing 20 U.S.C. section 1681(a)(3).  There is a pending federal lawsuit against the Education Department by a group of students from such religious schools claiming that this section violates the 1st Amendment Establishment Clause.  Religious schools have moved to intervene as parties in that lawsuit, claiming that the government may not sufficiently defend their exemption.  The Justice Department has opposed their motion in a recent court filing, asserting that the government will “vigorously” defend the challenged provision.  The religious exemption was a politically necessary compromise to get Title IX adopted by Congress.

While the June 16 Notice states that its interpretation of Title IX “supersedes and replaces any prior inconsistent statements made by the Department regarding the scope of Title IX’s jurisdiction over discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” it goes on to say that this “interpretation does not reinstate any previously rescinded guidance documents.”  This comment is significant, because during the Obama Administration the Education Department issued guidance documents on Title IX compliance requirements that took positions on many of the controversial issues that have been subject to litigation.  Those guidance requirements were cited by school boards and administrators in defending actions they took, even after the guidances were formally rescinded by the Education Department shortly after Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education.  DeVos took the position, later bolstered by a memorandum by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in October 2017, that Title IX did not cover sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination.

Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, told The New York Times in an interview published on June 16 that “Students cannot be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or their gender identity,” but left unclear the question whether his Department would be challenging state laws that ban transgender girls from competing in school sports.  He stated, “We need to make sure we are supporting all students in our schools,” but he did not get specific about particular challenged policies.  Making clear that “all” really means “all,” the Notice says that the Department’s Office of Civil Rights “carefully reviews allegations from anyone who files a complaint, including students who identify as male, female or nonbinary; transgender or cisgender; intersex; lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, heterosexual, or in other ways.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit recently heard arguments in the State of Idaho’s appeal from a district court decision finding that the state’s ban on transgender girls playing sports, the first such ban to be enacted, violates the constitutional rights of the transgender girls.  If this issue ends up in the Supreme Court, the Biden Administration will have to take a position one way or the other, just as it will be pressed to take a position if the Court grants the petition by the Gloucester County School Board in the Gavin Grimm case.  A federal court in Connecticut recently dismissed a lawsuit by a group of cisgender female high school athletes challenging a state policy of allowing transgender girls to compete, finding that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring the issue to the court.

The Education Department’s interpretation of Title IX is not binding on the federal courts, but is entitled to some degree of deference under principles of administrative law.   After DeVos and Sessions “rescinded” the Obama Administration’s interpretation and guidance documents, many federal courts continued to rule in favor of transgender students and school administrators who had adopted policies allowing transgender students to use restroom facilities.  The lower federal courts have been united up to now in rejecting claims by parents and students that allowing transgender students to use restroom and locker room facilities violates the constitutional privacy rights of non-LGBTQ students, and the Supreme Court has so far refrained from hearing those cases.

As President Biden has boasted about how many LGBTQ people he has appointed, it is worth noting that both the Justice Department Civil Rights Division March 26 Memo and the June 16 DOE Notice were authored by out lesbian appointees, Pamela Karlan and Suzanne Goldberg.

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Federal Appeals Court Says University Professor May Have 1st Amendment Right to Misgender Transgender Students

Nicholas Meriwether, a philosophy professor at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, was very concerned in 2016 when the University announced that its ban on gender identity discrimination would require professors to respect students’ gender identity by using appropriate pronouns to refer to them.  Meriwether, a devout Christian who rejects the idea that people can have a different gender identity than their genetic sex, protested to his department chair, who ridiculed his religious beliefs and told him to comply with the rule.  Now a federal appeals court panel has ruled that the Meriwether could have a 1st Amendment right to insist on misgendering transgender students based on his religious beliefs.  Meriwether v. Hartop, 2021 WL 1149377, 2021 U.S. App. LEXIS 8876 (6th Cir., March 26, 2021).

According to his federal court complaint, Meriwether says that the department chair exhibited hostility toward him and his beliefs during their meeting, stating that “adherents to the Christian religion are primarily motivated out of fear”; “the Christian doctrines regarding hell are harmful and should not be taught”; “anyone who believes hell exists should not be allowed to teach these doctrines”; “faculty members who adhere to a certain religion should be banned from teaching courses regarding that religion”; and “the presence of religion in higher education is counterproductive” because “the purpose of higher education is to liberate students” and “religion oppresses students.”

Meriwether, who had taught at Shawnee for 35 years, confronted the issue up-close in January 2018 when he returned from a semester on sabbatical leave and discovered, undoubtedly to his chagrin, that there was a transgender woman in his class, who is identified in the litigation as “Doe.”  Meriwether, believing Doe to be male, addressed Doe as “sir” in response to a comment Doe made in class discussion.  After the class, Doe approached Meriwether and advised him that Doe was a woman and should be addressed accordingly.  Doe threatened to file a complaint against Meriwether if he did not address her as female.

This led ultimately to the University putting a disciplinary note and warning in Meriwether’s file when he failed to abide by instructions to consistently address Doe as a woman or to just to use her last name when calling on or referring to her.  He tried to restrain himself from addressing Doe incorrectly, but slipped up on occasion, quickly correcting himself.  He told one administrator that he would be willing to comply with the rule by referring to Doe consistently as female if he could put an explanatory statement in his course Syllabus setting forth his religious views, but he was told that would itself violate the anti-discrimination rule.

Doe filed at least two complaints with University administrators against Meriwether, leading to findings that he had created a hostile environment for Doe, which he tried to refute by claiming that Doe had participated actively and well in class discussion and earned a high grade in his course.  Meriwether appealed these rulings and claimed that when his union representative tried to explain Meriwether’s religious freedom argument to the University President, that official just laughed and refused to listen.

U.S. District Judge Susan J. Dlott referred the University’s motion to dismiss Meriwether’s 1st Amendment lawsuit to a Magistrate Judge, Karen L. Litkovitz, who issued a Report and Recommendation in 2019 concluding that the case should be dismissed, because Meriwether’s failure to comply with the University’s rule did not involve constitutionally protected speech.  In January 2020, Judge Dlott issued a brief opinion agreeing with Litkovitz’s recommendation and dismissing the case.  Meriwether, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a staunchly anti-LGBT religious litigation group, appealed to the Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, which reversed Judge Dlott’s ruling on March 26, reviving the lawsuit and sending it back to the District Court for trial.

Judge Dlott’s decision adopting Judge Litkovitz’s recommendation to dismiss the case was based heavily on Garcetti v. Ceballos, a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that held, by a vote of 5-4, that when government employees speak or write as part of their job, their speech is “government speech” that is not protected by the 1st Amendment.  As Justice Anthony Kennedy interpreted the Court’s free speech precedents, an individual is protected by the 1st Amendment’s freedom of speech when they are speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern, but not when they are speaking as a government official.  The case concerned a prosecuting attorney who claimed to have suffered unconstitutional retaliation for an internal memo he wrote and some testimony he gave in a criminal court hearing that met with disapproval from his supervisors.  The Supreme Court held that neither his memo nor his testimony enjoyed 1st Amendment protection because he was speaking as part of his job as a government official.

In a dissent, Justice David Souter raised the specter of censorship of public university professors who are employed to engage in scholarship and teaching and who would theoretically be deprived of academic freedom under such a rule.  Justice Kennedy responded in his opinion by acknowledging the academic freedom concern and observing that the Court was not deciding that issue in the Garcetti case.  Lower federal courts have been divided about the impact of Garcetti in cases involving educators seeking 1st Amendment protection for their speech.

In her opinion, Judge Litkovitz found that Professor Meriwether’s use of inappropriate terminology to refer to Doe was not protected speech, relying in part upon the Garcetti reasoning, and Judge Dlott accepted her conclusion.  But the 6th Circuit panel (which included two judges appointed by President Donald J. Trump) decisively rejected that view.

Writing for the unanimous panel, Circuit Judge Amul Roger Thapar seized upon Justice Souter’s dissent and Justice Kennedy’s acknowledgement that academic freedom concerns could create an exception to the Garcetti rule and insisted that Professor Meriwether’s claim that the University violated his 1st Amendment rights by disciplining him for his use of words in dealing with Doe should not have been dismissed.

“Under controlling Supreme Court and Sixth Circuit precedent, the First Amendment protects the academic speech of university professors,” wrote Judge Thapar. “Since Meriwether has plausibly alleged that Shawnee State violated his First Amendment rights by compelling his speech or silence and casting a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom, his free-speech claim may proceed.”  The court insisted that the words Meriwether used reflected his religiously-based beliefs about gender, and as spoken in the classroom were part of his teaching and were thus communicating his point of view about a hotly debated and controversial subject of public concern.  As such, they enjoy 1st Amendment protection under the free speech provision.

Furthermore, pointing out the hostility with which Meriwether’s department chair and the University president had responded to his religiously-based arguments, the court relied on the Supreme Court’s Masterpiece Cakeshop ruling to find that his right to free exercise of religion also came into play in this case.  If speech on an issue of public concern enjoys 1st Amendment protection, then the University’s disciplinary action of placing a warning letter in Meriwether’s personnel file and threatening him with more severe sanctions for future violations would be subject to “strict scrutiny,” which means the University and those officials named as individual defendants would have the burden to show that there is a compelling justification for their actions and that the “accommodations” that Meriwether had suggested would defeat the University’s attempt to achieve its compelling goal.

In this case, the University’s justification lies in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which provides that schools receiving federal funding may not deprive any individual of equal educational opportunity because of sex.  In 2016, the Obama Administration informed the educational community that it interpreted that language to ban gender identity discrimination, and published a guidance document that instructed, among other things, that transgender students have a right to be treated consistent with their gender identity, including appropriate use of language in speaking to and about them.

The University argued that the 6th Circuit’s decision in the Harris Funeral Homes case, which later became part of the Supreme Court’s 2020 Bostock ruling, had confirmed its compelling interest in preventing discrimination against transgender students.  In that case, the 6th Circuit, and ultimately the Supreme Court, held that the ban on sex discrimination in employment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applied to an employer’s discharge of a transgender employee when she announced her transition.

Judge Thapar rejected the argument.  “Harris does not resolve this case,” he insisted. “There, a panel of our court held that an employer violates Title VII when it takes an adverse employment action based on an employee’s transgender status.  The panel did not hold—and indeed, consistent with the First Amendment, could not have held—that the government always has a compelling interest in regulating employees’ speech on matters of public concern . . . . [It] would allow universities to discipline professors, students, and staff any time their speech might cause offense. That is not the law. Purportedly neutral non-discrimination policies cannot be used to transform institutions of higher learning into ‘enclaves of totalitarianism.’”

Furthermore, he wrote, “a requirement that an employer not fire an employee for expressing a transgender identity is a far cry from what we have here—a requirement that a professor affirmatively change his speech to recognize a person’s transgender identity.”

“At this stage of the litigation,” wrote Thapar, “there is no suggestion that Meriwether’s speech inhibited his duties in the classroom, hampered the operation of the school, or denied Doe any educational benefits. Without such a showing, the school’s actions ‘mandate orthodoxy, not anti-discrimination,’ and ignore the fact that ‘[t]olerance is a two-way street.’”  He also rejected the argument that how Meriwether addressed Doe in the classroom deprived her of educational opportunity, pointing out Meriwether’s claim that Doe was an active participant in class discussion and earned a “high grade” in his course.

Thapar supported this view by noting that University President Jeffrey A. Bauer, in confirming the disciplinary decision, had conceded that Meriwether did not create a hostile environment for Doe, instead resting his decision on the assertion that Meriwether discriminated against Doe by addressing cisgender students consistent with their gender identity but not address Doe consistent with her gender identity.  Thus, Judge Thapar concluded, disciplining Doe was not necessary to effectuate Title IX’s policy of protecting educational opportunity.

The court’s opinion lacks any kind of discussion or understanding concerning the concept of “misgendering” and the harm that inflicts on transgender individuals.  In the court’s view, the victim here is Professor Meriwether, not Doe.  This reflects the same cavalier attitude towards misgendering recently displayed in a 5th Circuit decision denying a request by a transgender prisoner that she be referred to consistent with her gender identity in court papers, also treated dismissively by a Trump-appointed appeals court judge.  And it calls to mind a recent ruling by the 11th Circuit striking down on 1st Amendment free speech grounds an attempt by Florida municipalities to protect LGBT youth from the practice of conversion therapy, yet another opinion by a Trump-appointed judge.  The Trump Administration may technically be at an end, but it lives on in his appointment of a third of the active federal appeals court judges.

The only point on which the 6th Circuit panel affirmed Judge Dlott’s ruling was in her conclusion rejecting Meriwether’s argument that the University’s rule was too vague to meet Due Process standards.  The 6th Circuit panel found that Prof. Meriwether was clearly advised of the rule and was accorded Due Process, while finding fault with the lack of neutrality towards religion exhibited by his department chair and President Bauer.  The court ordered that Judge Dlott’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit be vacated, and that the case sent back to the district court for proceedings consistent with the 6th Circuit’s opinion.

 

 

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Virginia School Board Asks Supreme Court to Overturn Gavin Grimm’s Transgender Rights Victory

The Gloucester County (Virginia) School Board filed a petition on February 19 with the Supreme Court seeking reviewing of the lower courts’ rulings in the lawsuit originally filed by Gavin Grimm, a transgender man, when he was a student at the School Board’s high school, seeking to be allowed to use restrooms consistent with his gender identity.  The School Board is appealing from an August 2020 decision by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, Gloucester County School Board v. Grimm, 972 F.3d 586 (4th Cir. 2020), which upheld the district court’s ruling that the School Board violated Grimm’s rights under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment by refusing to let him use the boys’ restroom facilities at the high school.

The Supreme Court had actually granted a petition for certiorari at an earlier point in this case, after the 4th Circuit ruled in 2016 that the district court should not have rejected Grimm’s Title IX sex discrimination claim, but should instead have deferred to the Obama Administration’s interpretation of the statute, as reflected in a letter filed with the district court that was subsequently formalized in a “Dear Colleague” letter sent by the U.S. Department of Education to the nation’s public school systems.  The narrowly framed question at that time was whether the district court should defer to an interpretation of Title IX regulations by the Obama Administration, which had articulated the view that Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination should be interpreted to include discrimination because of gender identity, and that transgender students are entitled to be dealt with by their schools consistent with their gender identity.

Oral argument was scheduled for March 2017, but then cancelled at the request of the Trump Administration as it withdrew the Obama Administration’s policy, and the Education Department ceased to investigate and pursue discrimination claims by transgender students.

Grimm’s pursuit of injunctive relief was largely mooted to a certain extent when he graduated from the high school that spring, but ultimately on remand the district court ruled in his favor on liability under Title IX, holding that he had suffered unlawful discrimination while a student, as well as by being denied an official high school transcript using his male name, a ruling that was upheld by the 4th Circuit on August 26, 2020, then denying a motion for rehearing on September 22.

The Trump Administration had disavowed enforcing Title IX in support of restroom access claims by transgender students, withdrawing the Obama Administration’s policy statement and proclaiming disagreement with the contention that Title IX extends to gender identity discrimination claims.  But after Trump lost re-election in November, the School Board had a new incentive to keep the case going, sine Joseph Biden’s campaign agenda, taken together with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County last June, made it likely that the Education Department would resume enforcing Title IX on gender identity claims by students.

After the Supreme Court ruled in Bostock, a Title VII employment discrimination case, that discrimination because of gender identity was necessarily discrimination because of sex, Trump Administration officials asserted that the ruling was not binding under Title IX.  However, President Biden’s January 20 Executive Order directing all federal agencies to follow the reasoning of Bostock in enforcing their statutory provisions banning sex discrimination (and specifically mentioning Title IX in this regard), signaled that the Education Department would resume processing discrimination claims by transgender students.  Indeed, in his Executive Order, President Biden specifically mentioned that students should not have to worry about being allowed to use restrooms.

The question presented by the Gloucester County petition: “Does Title IX or the Equal Protection Clause require schools to let transgender students use multi-user restrooms designated for the opposite biological sex, even when single-user restrooms are available for all students regardless of gender identity?”  This question, in the context of employee restroom use, was explicitly not addressed by the Court in Bostock, as not having been presented as an issue in that case, and Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the Supreme Court, solely focused its holding on the question whether a gender identity or sexual orientation discrimination claim could be presented to the courts under Title VII, although the Court’s articulated reason in so ruling would clearly apply to any statute that forbids discrimination because of sex (and plausibly to the Equal Protection Clause as well), as President Biden proclaimed in his Executive Order.

The Supreme Court has never directly ruled on the restroom issue in the context of Title IX, but its grant of review and scheduling of argument in the earlier stage of this case shows that at one time it had found the issues sufficiently compelling to grant review.  Since that time, Justice Gorsuch as replaced Justice Scalia, Justice Kavanaugh has replaced Justice Kennedy, and Justice Barrett has replaced Justice Ginsburg, generally moving the Court to a more conservative tilt.  While lower federal courts have generally fallen into line with the Obama Administration’s interpretation of these issues in school litigation, it is unclear that the Supreme Court will continue that trend with its current ideological line-up.  The Court’s 6-3 ruling in Bostock does not necessarily signal how it would rule if it grants review in this case.

Gavin Grimm has been represented through the litigation by the LGBT Rights Project of the ACLU.  Gene C. Schaerr, an experienced conservative Supreme Court litigator, is listed as Counsel of Record on the School Board’s petition.

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Federal Court Enjoins HHS & EEOC From Requiring Catholic Plaintiffs to Perform or Provide Gender Transition Services

Ruling on the last full day of the Trump Administration, one of the federal trial judges appointed by the outgoing president ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bars the federal government from enforcing the non-discrimination requirement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) Section 1557 or Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against Catholic plaintiffs to require them either to fund or perform gender transition procedures.  Religious Sisters of Mercy v. Azar, 2021 WL 191009, 2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9156 (D.N.D., January 19, 2021).  Chief Judge Peter D. Welte denied summary judgment to co-plaintiff the State of North Dakota, which sought a declaration that it is not required to provide such procedures in its state health institutions or to its employees or through its Medicaid program, and found that the Plaintiffs lacked standing on their claims concerning performance of abortions and sterilizations, as the court found that various provisions of the ACA and other federal laws already relieved them of obligations in that regard.

Judge Welte issued his opinion just a few days after hearing oral argument on the summary judgment motions, but the case has been pending for a long time and it is likely that he had most of the lengthy, analytical opinion drafted well in advance of the argument, on the basis of the suit papers.

The case was complicated by the history of the federal government’s positions on the issue in question, which changed to the extent of the Trump Administration withdrawing an Obama Administration regulation from  2016 and replacing it with a new regulation, formally announced just days before the Supreme Court’s Bostock v. Clayton County decision.  In Bostock, 140 S. Ct. 1731 (June 15, 2020), the Court determined that Title VII’s ban on discrimination because of sex necessarily extended to claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation and transgender status.

The final regulation announced days before Bostock acknowledged that the case had been argued and indicated that its outcome could affect the scope of the ACA’s non-discrimination requirement.  In its explanatory Prologue to the regulation, HHS reiterated the Trump Administration’s view – presented to the Court in Bostock by the Solicitor General – that discrimination because of sex does not encompass discrimination because of gender identity.  Confident that they were going to win, their new regulation, intended to supplant the Obama Administration’s regulation, removed the earlier regulation’s definition of “sex” so that it no longer specified “gender identity.”  They went ahead and officially published the new regulation as previously schedule in the Federal Register a few days after Bostock was decided, making no effort to delay publication in order to take account of that decision.  The result was peculiar: a regulation formally published just days after a Supreme Court decision that admittedly could affect the substance of the regulation, but utterly failing to grapple with that effect.

The Trump Administration’s brazen decision to go ahead with final publication without taking Bostock into account persuaded several other federal district courts to conclude that the final regulation’s definition of sex violated the Administrative Procedure Act as being inconsistent with the ACA statute’s non-discrimination requirement and/or because it was adopted arbitrarily by failing to consider the Bostock decision.  Other district courts have also criticized HHS’s assertion in the regulation that Title IX’s religious entity exemption was relevant to the ACA, inasmuch as the ACA’s non-discrimination provision specifies that entities covered by it were subject to the kinds of discrimination prohibited by Title IX, which exempts religious schools from its sex discrimination requirements.  The Trump Administration had also persisted in rejecting arguments that Bostock’s interpretation of Title VII necessarily applied to Title IX and other federal sex discrimination laws.

The day after Judge Welte issued his decision, President Biden included among his first Executive Orders one instructing the Executive Branch to apply Bostock to all federal sex discrimination laws.  While EO’s are not interpretively binding on the courts, they are binding on how Executive Branch agencies interpret and enforce their statutory mandates, so the new leadership in HHS and, eventually, the EEOC (where the president gets to appoint one new member of the Commission each year, relatively quickly tipping the balance to the new Administration’s viewpoint regarding the definition of sex discrimination.

But that is neither here nor there regarding the central question in this case, at least as framed by Judge Welte in response to the Catholic plaintiffs, which is whether the government is precluded from enforcing any such non-discrimination requirement against the plaintiffs according to their religiously-based objections, in light of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In Bostock, Justice Neil Gorsuch referred to RFRA as a “super statute” that may override non-discrimination requirements of Title VII (and by extension Title VII and the ACA) in an “appropriate case.”  Is this such an appropriate case?  That turns on whether application of the non-discrimination requirement imposes a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion by the Catholic plaintiffs, in which case Judge Welte characterizes the level of judicial review to be applied to the government’s policy as “strict scrutiny” such that the policy can only be applied if it is the least intrusive way to achieve a compelling government interest.

The court found that “compliance with the challenged laws would violate the Catholic Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs as they sincerely understand them. . .  In meticulous detail, the Catholic Plaintiffs have explained that their religious beliefs regarding human sexuality and procreation prevent them from facilitating gender transitions through either medical services or insurance coverage.”

As to the compelling interest test, the court found that the Defendants “never attempt to make that showing here.”  Of course, Defendants are the Trump Administration’s HHS (for the ACA) and EEOC (for Title VII).  The rule HHS published in June 2020 “conceded to lacking a ‘compelling interest in forcing the provision, or coverage, of these medically controversial [gender-transition] services by covered entities.’”  By contrast, of course, when the Obama Administration opined on this in 2016, HHS specified a compelling interest in ensuring nondiscriminatory access to healthcare, and the EEOC asserted a compelling interest in ensuring non-discriminatory employee benefits plans.  But Judge Welte noted Supreme Court authority that those interests are stated at too high a level of generality to meet the RFRA test, directing courts to “scrutinize the asserted harm of granting specific exemptions to particular religious claimants and to look to the marginal interest in enforcing the challenged government action in that particular context.”  Responding to this command, wrote Welte, “Neither HHS nor the EEOC has articulated how granting specific exemptions for the Catholic Plaintiffs will harm the asserted interests in preventing discrimination. . .  In short, the Court harbors serious doubts that a compelling interest exists.  This issue need not be resolved, however,” he continued, “because the Defendants fail to meet the rigors of the least-restrictive-means test.”

The “least-restrictive means” test is the third part of the RFRA analysis.  Even if the government’s interest is compelling, the question is whether there is a way to achieve that interest without burdening the free exercise rights of the plaintiffs.  Is requiring Catholic entities to perform or finance gender transition the “only feasible means to achieve its compelling interest,” asks the court.  Here, resorting to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby case, Welte suggests that “the most straightforward way of doing this would be for the Government to assume the cost of providing gender transition procedures for those unable to obtain them under their health-insurance policies due to their employers’ religious objections.” And, he opined, “if broadening access to gender-transition procedures themselves is the goal, then ‘the government could assist transgender individuals in finding and paying for transition procedures available from the growing number of healthcare providers who offer and specialize in those services,’”  quoting Franciscan Alliance, a decision from the Northern District of Texas that had preliminarily enjoined the government from bringing enforcement actions under Section 1557 against religious objectors.  (That injunction was dissolved when the Trump Administration indicated to that court that it did not intend to enforce Section 1557 against religious objectors and would replace the 2016 Obama Administration regulation with one that did not require such coverage.) And, said the court, the Defendants had not shown that “these alternatives are infeasible.”

Thus, the court granted summary judgment and issued a permanent injunction against enforcement of Sec. 1557 or Title VII against the Catholic Plaintiffs in this case.  The court did not issue a nationwide injunction, however, limiting its injunction to the plaintiff organizations in this case, and as noted finding that the state of North Dakota did not have standing on these questions, rejecting its Spending Clause argument that the government was wrongly coercing the state to fund gender transition through the Medicare and Medicaid programs.

It is worth noting that this litigation was not brought on by an actual case of a transgender individual seeking gender transition services from a Catholic health care organization, or the employee of a Catholic entity challenging the failure of the employer’s health insurance to cover the procedures, or in response to a challenge to the state’s failure to cover these procedures for its employees or Medicaid participants.  This was affirmative litigation brought by the state and the Catholic plaintiffs preemptively, seeking to establish judicial cover for their discriminatory policies.  As such, and significantly, the interests of transgender people were not directly represented in this case although the ACLU participated as amicus curiae.   (Curiously, the Westlaw report of the case did not list the ACLU among counsel, but the Lexis report did as of January 23 when this account was written.)  The Plaintiffs were represented by the North Dakota Attorney General’s Office, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and private counsel for several of the Catholic institutional plaintiffs.  The government (i.e., the Trump Administration) was represented by the Justice Department and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for North Dakota, which of course was happy to let the Plaintiffs win in light of the Administration’s position opposing the Bostock ruling and their issuance of the 2020 Regulation (which the court could plausibly have found mooted the case, were it not for the fact that he was ruling the day before President Biden was to be inaugurated).  Now it is up to the Biden Administration to take over and appeal this decision to the 8th Circuit, in light of the President’s January 20 Executive Order.

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Trump Administration’s 11th Hour Attempt to Restrict Refugee Claims Blocked by Federal Court

The Trump Administration’s last-minute rulemaking on refugee law hit a roadblock on January 8 when a federal district court in San Francisco granted a request from organizations that represent refugees to issue a nation-wide preliminary injunction that will stop the rule from going into effect as scheduled on January 11.  District Judge James Donato found that the plaintiffs are likely to prevail on their claim that “Acting” Secretary Chad Wolf of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) did not have the authority to approve the rule because he was not validly appointed to that position.  The court will schedule a hearing soon to consider the plaintiffs’ further argument that the rule violates the Administrative Procedure Act and is inconsistent with federal immigration statutes and treaty obligations.  Pangea Legal Services v. U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, No. 20-cv-09253-JD; Immigration Equality v. U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security, No. 20-cv-09258-JD.

The federal Immigration and Nationality Act authorizes asylum in the United States for any foreign national found to be a “refugee,” which includes any person who cannot return to their home country “because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”  Determining who qualifies as a refugee is up to the Secretary of Homeland Security or the Attorney General.  During the Clinton Administration, Attorney General Janet Reno formally signified that people who suffered persecution on account of their sexual orientation could be considered members of a “particular social group” and since then many LGBTQ people have been awarded asylum in the United States, which allows them to live and work here, to travel abroad and to return.  Those who do not qualify for asylum may avoid being removed from the U.S. by showing that their “life or freedom would be threatened” in their home country “because of the alien’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” a status referred to as “withholding of removal.”

In addition, the United States is a party to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.  No party to the treaty “shall expel, return or extradite a person to another State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subject to torture.”  In some cases, LGBT petitioners have been able to claim protection under this Treaty due to the severe mistreatment of LGBTQ people in their home countries.

As part of its general policy of reducing the flow of people from other countries into the United States, the Trump Administration has promulgated a variety of policies formally approved by Chad Wolf, all of which are under attack in the courts.  Last June 15, DHS and the Justice Department published a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register, purporting to establish new rules intended to “streamline” the process of dealing with refugee applicants.  As usual with this Administration, “streamline” is a euphemism for sharply restricting the ability of people to qualify as refugees.

Most harmful for LGBTQ applicants is that the rule would eliminate all gender-based refugee claims, would drastically tighten the list of circumstances under which somebody who came to the U.S. without a visa issued by the State Department could claim refugee status and seek to remain here, and would apparently do away with the class of situations where the persecution is perpetrated by non-governmental actors.  Despite the complexity of the proposed rules, which took up 43 pages of small-type text in the Federal Register, only 30 days were given for public comment.  Judge Donato notes that over 87,000 comments were submitted “and they overwhelmingly opposed the proposed rule, often with detailed reasoning and analysis.”

Despite the flood of adverse comments, DHS and DOJ published a final rule in the Federal Register on December 11 that is “substantially the same” as the June 15 proposed rule, and set it to go into effect in one month.  The plaintiffs in this case promptly filed their lawsuits, two of which are combined before Judge Donato.  Immigration Equality, an LGBT rights organization, is one of the lead plaintiffs, with Lambda Legal and private attorneys helping to litigate the case.  The plaintiffs promptly filed a motion to stop the new rule from going into effect while the litigation proceeds.

In granting the motion, Judge Donato described the odd way the Trump Administration failed to comply with established procedures for designating the Secretary of DHS.  By statute, the DHS Secretary is to be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate, but the last person confirmed by the Senate, Kirstjen Nielsen, resigned effective April 10, 2019, and no new Secretary has been confirmed.  Under existing rules, Christopher Krebs, the Director of Cyber Security and Infrastructure Security, was supposed to become “Acting Secretary” and the President was to send the Senate a nomination for a new Secretary to be confirmed.  Trump has frequently stated his preference for “Acting” people to head agencies so he could quickly fire them if necessary.  Trump tweeted out a statement bypassing the usual procedures, stating that Kevin McAleenan, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, would be the “Acting Secretary.”  Since this was not in accord with the succession plan spelled out in a 2016 Executive Order, McAleenan’s appointment was arguably not valid.  McAleenan then adopted a succession plan in November 2019 that effectively made Chad Wolf his successor when McAleenan resigned.  Since McAleenan was not legally in his position, he did not have the authority to do this, so Wolf’s appointment is also likely invalid.

Since a new regulation requires the approval of the Secretary and there is no validly appointed Secretary of DHS, the plaintiffs have a strong argument that the regulation was not validly promulgated and cannot take effect.  At least, Judge Donato concluded, they are likely to prevail on this point when the court reaches the merits of the case.  For purposes of deciding on issuing the preliminary injunction that is all he had to decide, putting off to later the plaintiffs’ argument that the regulation is inconsistent with the statute and the country’s treaty obligation.

Judge Donato was scathing in describing the Justice Department’s attempt to justify Wolf’s authority in the face of four previous adverse decisions by federal courts.  The government filed appeals of three of those rulings but withdrew two of the appeals and one is still pending.  “This Court is now the fifth federal court to be asked to plow the same ground about Wolf’s authority vel non to change the immigration regulations,” he commented.  “If the government had proffered new facts or law with respect to that question, or a hitherto unconsidered argument, this might have been a worthwhile exercise.  It did not.”  To the judge’s apparent astonishment, the government’s attorney at the hearing on this motion, August Flentje, just argued that the prior court rulings were “wrong, with scant explanation,” which Donato characterized as a “troubling strategy.  In effect, the government keeps crashing the same car into the gate, hoping that someday it might break through.”

“A good argument might be made, at this point in time, the government’s arguments lack a good-faith basis in law or fact,” continued Donato, but he concluded it was unnecessary for him to make such a drastic finding, since his own review of the record indicates that “the latest decision before this order correctly identified and analyzed the salient points vitiating Wolf’s claim of rulemaking authority, and the Court agrees with it in full.”

This case shows the Trump Administration’s general contempt for the federal judiciary, especially (but not only) when a judge appointed by President Barack Obama (such as Judge Donato) is hearing the case.  Judge Donato found that letting the rule go into effect would irreparably harm the plaintiff organizations in their missions to represent asylum seekers, and that the balance of hardship between the plaintiffs, the government, and the public interest all tilted in favor of issuing the injunction.

Once a final regulation has been published in the Federal Register, it cannot be simply withdrawn by the next Administration, but this preliminary injunction will give breathing room for the Biden Administration’s incoming DHS and DOJ leadership to put the wheels in motion under the Administrative Procedure Act to terminate or replace it, if the court doesn’t dispose of it first by issuing a final ruling on the merits that it was invalidly promulgated.  Issuing the preliminary injunction was a promising first step.

Among the attorneys working on the case are Immigration Equality Legal Director Bridget Crawford and Executive Director Aaron Morris, Lambda Legal attorneys Jennifer C. Pizer, Omar Gonzalez-Pagan and Richard Saenz, and cooperating attorneys Jeffrey S. Trachtman, Aaron M. Frankel, Chase Mechanik, Jason M. Moff and Austin Manes from the law firm Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP.

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Nevada Supreme Court Holds Obergefell Requires Retroactive Recognition of Out-of-State Same-Sex Marriages (but Not Civil Unions) for Community Property Purposes

The Supreme Court of Nevada unanimously ruled on December 23 that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015), must be applied retroactively in determining the commencement date of the marital “community” for purposes of dividing assets in a divorce, but such constitutionally-demanded retroactivity extends only to marriages, not to civil unions.  LaFrance v. Cline, 2020 WL 7663476, 2020 Nev. Unpub. LEXIS 1209.

Mary Elizabeth LaFrance and Gail Cline, Nevada residents, went to Vermont to have a civil union ceremony in 2000, returning home to Nevada.  In 2003, when same-sex marriage became available in Canada, they went there and got married, then returned to their home in Nevada.  In 2014, they decided to break up their marriage and filed for judicial dissolution.  That was the year that a lawsuit brought marriage equality to Nevada, in Latta v. Otter, 771 F.3d 456 (9th Cir. 2014).  Nevada is a community property state, and it became necessary for the trial court to decide what property and assets were part of the “community” for purposes of division of assets.  Responding to LaFrance’s argument as of 2018 when the Clark County 8th Judicial District Court had to decide, Judge Mathew Harter concluded that pursuant to Obergefell he should find that the community came into effect when the parties entered into their civil union in 2000, and divided property accordingly.  LaFrance appealed, contending that for purposes of Nevada law, their marital community didn’t come into effect until the Latta decision in 2014.

The Nevada Supreme Court decided that both parties were incorrect.  Under Nevada law as of the time the petition for dissolution was filed, a civil union from Vermont could be recognized for these purposes but only if the parties had registered their civil union as a domestic partnership with the Nevada Secretary of State, and these women had not done so.  Thus, the court held in an opinion by Chief Justice Kristina Pickering, Judge Harter erred in dating the community from 2000.

On the other hand, the court ruled, the 2003 Canadian marriage should be deemed the date when the community was formed.  Even though it was not recognized in Nevada at that time, the court found that it must be retroactively recognized pursuant to Obergefell.

“In 2015, before the parties’ divorce was finalized, the United States Supreme Court decided Obergefell,” wrote Chief Justice Pickering.  “The Court in Obergefell held that ‘the right to marry is a fundamental right,’ and that each state must ‘recognize a lawful same-sex marriage performed in another State.’  Although the Supreme Court has not opined on the retroactive effects of its Obergefell holding, the Supreme Court has ‘recognized a general rule of retrospective effect for [its] constitutional decisions,’” citing Harper v. Virginia Department of Taxation, 509 U.S. 86, 94 (1993).  Since the parties’ divorce was not finalized until after Obergefell was decided, the court concluded that “the Supreme Court’s constitutional decision in Obergefell, requiring states to recognize same-sex marriages, applies retroactively to the parties’ 2003 Canadian marriage.”  Thus, 2003 is the commencement date for the marital community.

LaFrance protested that this was unfair, arguing that she and Cline had been operating all those years under the assumption that they did not have any legal rights as a couple in Nevada throughout the period of their Canadian marriage.  (Recall that Latta was not decided until the year they initiated their divorce proceedings, the year prior to Obergefell.)  No matter, said the court.  “Nevada must credit the parties’ marriage as having taken place in 2003 and apply the same terms and conditions as accorded to opposite-sex spouses.  These conditions include a presumption that any property acquired during the marriage is community property, NRS 123.220, and an opportunity for spouses to rebut this presumption by showing by clear and certain proof that specific property is separate.”

Thus, the property division issue was remanded to Judge Harter “to apply community property principles, including tracing, to the parties’ property acquired after their 2003 Canadian marriage.”

Justice Abbi Silver recused herself from the case voluntarily.  The version of the opinion issued on Westlaw and Lexis as of the end of December did not list counsel for the parties.

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N.Y. Appellate Division 2nd Department Overrules Precedent, Holding False Imputation of Homosexuality is not Defamatory Per Se

In Laguerre v. Maurice, 2020 WL 7636435, 2020 N.Y. App. LEXIS 8011, 2020 NY Slip Op 07887 (2nd Dept., Dec. 23, 2020), a panel of the N.Y. Appellate Division, 2nd Department, abandoned a departmental precedent dating from 1984, Matherson v. Marchello, 100 App. Div. 2d 233, finding that today a false statement that the plaintiff was a homosexual who watched gay porn on his employer’s computer is not defamatory per se and thus a complaint to that effect must be dismissed for failure to allege special damages.  The court noted with approval the 3rd Department’s 2012 decision in Yonaty v. Mincolla, 97 App. Div. 3d 144, which was the first intermediate appellate ruling in New York to abandon prior case law on this point.  Justice Sheri Roman wrote the opinion for the panel.

Pierre Delor Laguerre was an elder in the Gethsemane Seventh Day Adventist Church in Brooklyn.  He claims that he had a falling out with Pastor Jean Renald Maurice, the defendant, which, according to Justice Roman’s summary, “initially centered around church-related issues, and that Pastor Maurice stated that, if the plaintiff ‘did not submit to him,’ Pastor Maurice would ‘crumble’ the plaintiff.”  According to the complaint, Maurice stated that he would “make false statements against the plaintiff and have the church membership vote to relieve the plaintiff of his responsibilities at the church.”  Laguerre claims that before a congregational meeting with about 300 members in attendance, Maurice made the false statement concerning Laguerre, thus prompting the congregation to vote as Maurice requested.  Laguerre is for per se defamation.

Pastor Maurice moved to dismiss the complaint on three grounds.

First, he argued, the court lacked jurisdiction because this was essentially an ecclesiastical matter.  Laguerre countered that the question of defamation could be decided as a matter of civil law without reference to any religious doctrine, and the trial judge, Justice Devin P. Cohen of Kings County Supreme Court, agreed with Laguerre’s argument on this point and denied the motion to dismiss on jurisdictional grounds, and the Appellate Division panel found this ruling to be correct.

Second, Maurice argued that his statement was privileged under the “common interest” rule, contending that a communication from a pastor to a congregation on a church-related matter could not be made the basis of a defamation claim.  While acknowledging the existence of the privilege, Justice Cohen found that Laguerre’s allegations support the argument that the privilege was lost in this case because the statement was made with “malice,” noting Laguerre’s allegation that Pastor Maurice had threatened to make a false statement about Laguerre to persuade the congregation to terminate his status.  Knowingly making a false statement of fact with malice is not privileged.  The appellate panel also found this ruling to be correct.

However, Pastor Maurice was more successful with his third argument on appeal, that the alleged statement was not defamatory per se.  Laguerre’s complaint relies on Matherson v. Marchello, cited above, to contend that in the 2nd Department a false imputation of homosexuality is automatically actionable as per se defamation.  That is, in ruling on a motion to dismiss, a trial court in the 2nd Department should presume that such a statement would harm the reputation and livelihood of the plaintiff, so the plaintiff would not have to allege special damages such as economic injury in order to maintain his action.  At the time Matherson was decided, there were rulings by all four Appellate Departments to similar effect.  However, the 3rd Department broke ranks in 2012 with Yonaty.  The Court of Appeals has not ruled on the question, so the matter is left to be decided by each Appellate Division department.  Given the state of precedent in the 2nd Department, Justice Cohen had denied the motion to dismiss on this ground as well.  Laguerre appealed Cohen’s decision on all three grounds.

Finding the reasoning of Yonaty to be persuasive, the 2nd Department now holds that Matherson and the earlier cases that it had cited “are inconsistent with current public policy,” wrote Justice Roman.  “This profound and notable transformation of cultural attitudes and governmental protective laws impacts our own consideration of stare decisis,” she wrote.  The court recited a litany of legal developments since 1984, particularly noting the Supreme Court’s 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas striking down as unconstitutional a Texas statute outlawing homosexual sex and that court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges finding a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry.  The court also noted that New York has banned sexual orientation discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations since 2002 and enacted its own marriage equality law in 2011.

Thus, there is today no necessary presumption that falsely calling somebody homosexual will harm their reputation, and such a statement no longer falls within the sphere of cases in which reputational harm can be assumed on ground of criminality, professional disqualification or the imputation of a “loathsome illness.”  A false statement that does demonstrably cause economic harm to the plaintiff could still be the basis of a defamation claim, but such harm would have to be alleged and factually supported in the complaint.  Although the court does not discuss the point, it seems likely that being an elder in the church did not make Laguerre an employee and so the loss of his position did not inflict an economic injury on him; otherwise, he might have alleged that as special damages.

“Based on the foregoing,” wrote Justice Roman, “we conclude that the false imputation of homosexuality does not constitute defamation per seMatherson’s holding to the contrary should no longer be followed.  Therefore, the plaintiff was required to allege special damages.  He failed to do so, and, consequently, his cause of action alleging defamation per se must be dismissed.”

The unanimous panel of the 2nd Department in this case included, in addition to Justice Roman, Justices Cheryl E. Chambers, Sylvia O. Hinds-Radix, and Colleen D. Duffy.  Laguerre is represented by Maurice Dean Williams of The Bronx, and Pastor Maurice by the firm of Lester Schwab Katz & Dwyer of Manhattan.

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