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Federal Court Narrows Discovery in Trans Military Case, but Rejects Government’s Broad Privilege Claims

Posted on: September 20th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, ruling in the first of four pending lawsuits challenging the current version of the military policy on transgender service, issued a wide-ranging ruling on September 13 attempting to settle some of the remaining problems in deciding what information the plaintiffs are entitled to obtain through discovery as the case continues. The case, renamed since President Trump was removed as a defendant and James Mattis quit as Defense Secretary, is now called Jane Doe 2 v. Mark T. Esper, 2019 WL 4394842, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156803 (D.D.C., September 13, 2019)

The decision makes clear that the court has rejected the government’s argument that the so-called “Mattis Plan,” implemented in April 2019 after the Supreme Court voted to stay the preliminary injunctions that had been issued by the district courts, is entitled to virtually total deference from the court, thus precluding any discovery into how the Mattis Plan was put together, allegedly by a task force of experts convened by Defense Secretary James Mattis in response to the president’s request for a plan to implement the total ban on transgender service that he announced by tweet in July 2017.

When Trump came into office, transgender people were serving openly in the military as a result of a policy announced at the end of June 2016 by President Obama’s Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter.  The Carter policy lifted the existing ban on open transgender military service, but delayed lifting the ban on enlistment of transgender people for one year.  The first move by the Trump Administration concerning this policy was an announcement by Secretary Mattis at the end of June 2017 that he would not lift the enlistment ban until January 2018 in order to make sure that all necessary policies were in place to evaluate transgender applicants for enlistment.

A few weeks later, catching just about everybody by surprise, President Trump tweeted his announcement of a total ban on transgender people serving.  This was followedby a White House memorandum in August 2017, delaying enlistment of transgender people indefinitely, but allowing those already in the military to continue serving until March 2018 while Secretary Mattis came up with an implementation plan to recommend to the president.

Starting in August 2017 and continuing into the fall, four law suits were filed in federal district courts around the country challenging the constitutionality of the ban as announced by the President.  Federal district judges issued preliminary injunctions in all four lawsuits while denying the government’s motion to dismiss them, setting the stage for discovery to begin.  Discovery is the phase of a lawsuit during which the parties can request information, testimony and documents from each other in order to build a factual record for the decision of the case, and under federal discovery rules, anything that may be relevant to decide the case may be discoverable, subject to privileges that parties may assert.

In February 2018, Secretary Mattis released a report, purportedly compiled by a task force of senior military personnel and experts whom Mattis did not identify, discussing transgender military service and recommending a policy that differed in many respects from the absolute ban Trump had announced.  Under this proposed policy, the enlistment ban would be relaxed for transgender people who have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and are willing to serve in their gender as identified at birth.  The policy would allow transgender people who were serving to continue doing so.  Those who were transitioning as of the date the policy was implemented would be allowed to complete their transition and serve in their desired gender.  Otherwise, transgender personnel would have to serve in their gender as identified at birth, and would be separated from the service if they were diagnosed with gender dysphoria.  Nobody would be allowed to initiate transition while in the military once this policy was implemented.  There was no guarantee that transgender personnel would be allowed re-enlist at the end of their term of enlistment unless they met the same standards as a new applicant.  In short, the proposed policy would allow some transgender people to serve, but not all who were otherwise qualified, and would place certain restrictions on those who were allowed to continue serving.

Trump’s response to the recommendation was to revoke his prior policy announcements and to authorize Mattis to implement what became known as the Mattis Plan.  However, all the preliminary injunctions were still in place, so the government concentrated on getting the injunctions dissolved or withdrawn and getting the district judges to dismiss the cases on the ground that the policy they were attacking no longer existed.  The district judges resisted this move, some appeals were taken to the courts of appeals, and ultimately the Mattis Plan was implemented more than a year after it was proposed to the president, when the Supreme Court cut through the procedural difficulties and ruled, without a written opinion, that the Mattis Plan could go into effect while the lawsuits continued.

The focus of the lawsuits now switched to challenge the constitutionality of the Mattis Plan, and the parties went back to battling about discovery after it was clear that the district courts would not dismiss these lawsuits merely because one plan had been substituted for another.  Although some transgender people can serve under the Mattis Plan, the Plan still discriminates both against transgender people who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and against those who have not by requiring them to forego obtaining a diagnosis and transitioning if they want to serve.

One of the issues for Judge Kollar-Kotelly was deciding whether the government was correct to argue that because the Mattis Plan resulted from a Task Force study and recommendation process, it was entitled to standard military deference, under which courts disclaim the power to second-guess the personnel policies the military adopts.  The government focused particularly on a concurring opinion in the D.C. Circuit panel opinion that had quashed the preliminary injunction in this case, which arguably supported the view that plaintiffs were not entitled to discovery of documents and testimony related to the “deliberative process” by which the Mattis Plan was devised.

The judge responded that this was the central issue of the case: whether the Mattis Plan is entitled to standard military deference.  She found that the concurring judge, Stephen Williams, was alone in his view, as the other two members of the D.C. Circuit panel, faithful to Supreme Court precedents, had not opposed discovery, find that the deference question turned on whether the Mattis Plan is “the result of reasoned decision-making” that relates to military readiness concerns.  If, as the plaintiffs suspect and have argued all along, Trump’s motivation in banning transgender military service was motivated by politics, not by any evidence that the Ashton Carter policy had harmed the military by allowing unqualified people to serve, it would not be the result of “reasoned decision-making “and thus not entitled to deference.

Agreeing with the plaintiffs, Judge Kollar-Kotelly wrote that she could not decide the appropriate level of deference (or non-deference) without access to information about how the Mattis Plan was devised.  Thus discovery should continue ,focused on that.  However, she rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that they should be allowed to conduct discovery on Mattis’s initial decision to delay enlistments for six months, or on the process by which Trump formulated the July 2017 total ban announced in his tweet and elaborated in the White House’s August 2017 memorandum. Those, she found, are no longer relevant when the focus of the lawsuit has shifted to the constitutionality of the Mattis Plan.

As to that, however, the judge ruled that the government’s attempt to shield access to relevant information under the “deliberative process privilege” was not applicable to this case.  Just as the current state of the record is inadequate to determine the level of deference, discovery of the deliberative process by which the Mattis Plan was devised is necessary to determine whether it is the “result of reasoned decision-making.”

The judge reviewed a checklist of factors created by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in earlier cases to determine whether the deliberative process privilege should be set aside in a particular case, and found that the plaintiffs’ requests checked all the necessary boxes.  The information is essential to decide the case, it is not available elsewhere than from the government, and the court can use various procedures to ensure that information that needs to be kept confidential can be protected from general exposure through limitations on who can see it, known as protective orders.  Furthermore, the parties can apply to the court for determination of whether any particular document need not be disclosed in discovery on grounds of relevance.

The government was particularly reluctant to comply with the plaintiffs’ request for “raw data and personnel files.”  The plaintiffs sought this in order to determine whether the factual claims made in the Task Force Report are based on documented facts, especially the claims in the Report that allowing persons who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria to serve will be harmful to military readiness because of limitations on deployment during transitioning and geographical limitations on deployment due to ongoing medical issues after transition.  Critics have pointed out that the Report seems to be based more on the kind of propaganda emanating from anti-transgender groups than on a realistic appraisal of the experience in the military since Secretary Carter lifted the former ban effective July 1, 2016.  Since transgender people in various stages of transition have been serving openly for a few years, there are medical and performance records that could be examined to provide such information, but the government has been refusing to disclose it, claiming both that it raises privacy concerns and that disclosure is unnecessary because the Mattis Plan is entitled to deference as a military policy.

The judge found that it should be possible for these records to be discovered by redacting individually identifying information and imposing limitations on who can see the information and how it can be used.  Thus, the privacy concerns raised by the government should not be an impediment.  And this information, once again, is very relevant to the question whether the statements about the service qualifications of transgender people are based on biased opinions rather than facts, thus discrediting the claim that the policy is the result of reasoned decision-making.

The Trump Administration’s strategy in this, as in many other ongoing lawsuits concerning controversial policy decisions, has been to fight against discovery at every stage and to appeal every ruling adverse to them, including trying to “jump over” the courts of appeals to get the Supreme Court to intervene on the government’s behalf, now that Trump has succeeded in fortifying the conservative majority on the Court with the additions of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.  It would not be surprising if the government seeks to appeal Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling to the D.C. Circuit once again to put off (perhaps permanently) the day when they will have to give up the identities of the Mattis Task Force members and open the books on how this policy – obviously political in its conception and implementation – was conceived.

Of course, if the White House changes hands in January 2021, a Democrat president could reverse the ban in any of its forms with a quick Executive Order restoring Secretary Carter’s policy from 2016.  As the four lawsuits continue to be bogged down in discovery disputes, that may be the way this story eventually ends.  If Trump is re-elected, the story continues to drag out while the Mattis Plan stays in place.

The plaintiffs are represented by a growing army of volunteer big firm attorneys and public interest lawyers from GLAD (GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

2nd Circuit Holds That It Was Not “Clearly Established” That Sexual Orientation Discrimination in Public Employment is Actionable Under the Equal Protection Clause Prior to Obergefell and Windsor

Posted on: September 8th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

In the course of deciding an appeal by some supervisory public employees of a district court’s refusal to accord them qualified immunity from a discharged employee’s claim of discrimination because of perceived sexual orientation (that took place in 2010), a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals stated in Naumovski v. Norris, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 23891, 2019 WL 3770193 (Aug. 12, 2019), that it was not then “clearly established” by the Supreme Court or the 2nd Circuit prior to the rulings in U.S. v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges that sexual orientation discrimination is actionable under in a 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 claim alleging a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.

The opinion for the panel by Circuit Judge Jose Cabranes suggests that it might be “possible today that sexual orientation discrimination in public employment may be actionable under Section 1983,” but at the time of the conduct challenged in this case “such a constitutional prohibition was not yet ‘clearly established’” so the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity from the claim.  In a footnote, Judge Cabranes acknowledged that as early as 1996, in Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 634, and again in 2003, in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, the Supreme Court “had already begun to scrutinize laws that reflected ‘animosity’ toward gays,” but in this case the plaintiff had not alleged “such class-based animosity or desire to harm.”  He also noted that under Engquist v. Oregon Dept. of Agriculture, 553 U.S. 591 (2008), the plaintiff could not bring a “class of one” equal protection case “simply on the basis that her termination was individually arbitrary.”

On March 10, 2010, Binghamton University’s Athletic Director, James Norris, informed Elizabeth Naumovski, then assistant coach of the women’s basketball team, that she would be discharged if she did not resign.  She resigned and filed her discrimination charges with the NY State Division of Human Rights and the EEOC.  After exhausting administrative remedies against the school, she filed suit in federal court, adding discrimination claims under the Constitution against the Athletic Director and the Head Coach of the team as well as the university employer.  Norris and Scholl sought unsuccessfully to get U.S. District Judge David Hurd to dispose of the claims against them on grounds of qualified immunity, as part of his overall ruling on motions for summary judgment, and this appeal to the 2nd Circuit concerns Judge Hurd’s failure to grant their motions, which he implicitly did by denying them summary judgment.

Naumovski, a single woman in her thirties, became the subject of rumors concerning her possible relationship with a woman on the team, identified in the opinion as J.W.  Complaints from other students that Naumovski was showing favoritism to this woman came to the head coach and the then-assistant athletic director, James Norris, who, according to Judge Cabranes, “states that he understood the rumors to refer to a relationship of favoritism between a coach and a student-athlete, rather than to a sexual relationship between the two.”  Norris discussed these rumors with the Athletic Director, “who assured him that the allegations were the baseless fabrications of disgruntled former members of the Binghamton Athletics community.”  Norris was promoted to the athletic directorship on September 30, 2009.

In response to the persisting rumors during the fall term of 2009, Head Coach Nicole Scholl “imposed various restrictions on interactions between coaches and student-athletes to avoid any perception of impropriety.”  According to Naumovski’s allegations, “As a result of the increased scrutiny triggered by these restrictions, Naumovski began to suffer from depression and stress-induced weight loss.” She met with Norris to address the rumors, and claims he told her that “your problem is that you’re a single female in your mid-30s,” implying that the rumors were due to a perception that she was a lesbian.  Norris denies having made that comment, a potential material fact in the overall scheme of the litigation, in terms of the school’s potential liability.

The rumors persisted into 2010, as Norris continued to receive complaints about “favoritism” by Naumovski towards J.W. Friction developed between Naumovski and Head Coach Scholl, who felt that “Naumovski was trying to undermine her leadership of the team.”  Wrote Cabranes, “Naumovski does not deny tension between herself and Scholl; rather, she claims that any such tension ceased after a February 9, 2010 meeting with Scholl.  Naumovski further claims that Scholl and Norris never expressed any additional concerns about her coaching performance after that time.”  However, during a phone call on February 21, Scholl and Norris agreed that Naumovski’s employment should be terminated at the end of the basketball season in March. “The decision was purportedly based on Naumovski’s demonstrated favoritism toward certain student-athletes and the disruptive impact of her workplace conflicts with Scholl,” writes Cabrances, relating the defendants’ claims.  Meanwhile, Norris continued to receive student complaints and things came to a head when J.W.’s family received “an anonymous, vulgar letter accusing her of ‘screwing’ Naumovski,” which J.W. told Naumovksi about, and which led J.W.’s mother to call Norris; it is disputed whether the letter was mentioned in that phone call.  However, a week after that call, Norris informed Naumovski that she was being fired for performance reasons, but she could resign to forestall being fired, which she did.

Naumovski’s suit alleges discrimination based on her sex, perceived sexual orientation, and national origin (Canadian), in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment (42 USC 1983), as well as the NY Constitution and NY Human Rights Law.  Defendants moved for summary judgment after discovery.  “The motion remained pending for several years,” write Cabranes, not being decided until April 17, 2018, when District Judge Hurd granted summary judgment to Binghamton University and the State University of New York on all constitutional claims but allowed statutory claims to proceed to trial. (Perhaps Judge Hurd was waiting to rule on the motions for a final resolution by the Circuit of whether sexual orientation claims are actionable under Title VII, which emerged with the Zarda v. Altitude Express en banc ruling in February 2018.) As to the individual defendants, Scholl and Norris, Hurd dismissed all claims except for Naumovski’s sex-based disparate treatment and hostile work environment claims under 42 USC 1983 (Equal Protection), failing to address the issue of their qualified immunity from constitutional claims even though they sought to invoke immunity in their summary judgment motion.  Judge Hurd subsequently denied a motion by Norris and Scholl for reconsideration on the immunity argument as untimely under local rules, asserting that it did not raise any new issues, and they appealed to the 2nd Circuit.

Judge Cabranes devoted considerable space in his opinion to explaining the different proof requirements on the statutory claims and the constitutional claims.  In particular, he noted, under Title VII, the plaintiff can win by showing that her sex or perceived sexual orientation was a “motivating factor” for discrimination, but on the constitutional equal protection claim, her burden would be to show that it was a “but-for” factor.  He also devoted a portion of the opinion to itemizing the various other ways in which the statutory and constitutional claims receive different treatment, finding that the district court seems to have conflated the two separate modes of analysis in its decision.  Furthermore, he pointed out that the statutory claims under employment discrimination law run only against the institutional employer, not against individuals, while the constitutional claims could be asserted against individuals who are “state actors,” but who enjoy qualified immunity from personal liability unless it is “clearly established” by appellate precedent that the discrimination with which they are charged is, if proven, unconstitutional.

Turning to the subject of the appeal, Judge Hurd’s implicit denial (or failure to recognize) qualified immunity from the constitutional claims for Norris and Scholl, Cabranes noted that the 2nd Circuit’s review of the district court’s “implicit” rejection of the qualified immunity claims “is complicated by several factors.  First, the District Court never addressed the claims of qualified immunity in its Memorandum-Decision and Order; it is therefore impossible to review its specific reasoning in denying relief on this ground.  Second, while both the Complaint and the District Court’s Memorandum-Decision and Order conclude that Defendants’ alleged conduct constitutes sex discrimination (either through disparate treatment or subjection to a hostile environment), neither explains precisely how Defendants’ conduct can be so construed.  Third, the District Court opinion conflates its analysis of Naumovski’s Title VII and Sec. 1983 claims, rendering our task of reviewing only the Sec. 1983 claims more difficult.”  Attempting to “reconstruct the logic” of the District Court’s denial of immunity to Scholl and Norris on the constitutional claims, the court concluded that “no theory can sustain the District Court’s implicit denial of Defendant’s qualified immunity.”

First addressing the sex discrimination claim, the court found that there was a lack of evidentiary allegations to support the claim, apart from Naumovski’s allegation about Norris’s remark concerning her status as a single woman in her 30s, which the court concluded did not “constitute sufficient evidence to make out a case of employment discrimination,” characterizing it as “the sort of ‘stray remark’ that is insufficient to support an inference of discriminatory intent.”  While Judge Hurd referred to “other indicia” of discrimination intent, the appeals court was not convinced:  “The only ‘other indicia,’ however, is evidence suggesting that Scholl and Norris interpreted the rumors as alleging a sexual relationship between Naumovski and J.W., rather than mere favoritism from one to the other.  The invocation of such evidence is unavailing.  Even if we assume Scholl and Norris interpreted the allegations against Naumovski as sexual in nature, that fact provides no additional support for a conclusion that Scholl’s and Norris’s own actions were based on discriminatory animus toward women in general or any subcategory of female employees in particular,” wrote Cabranes.  Thus, the conclusion that summary judgment should have been granted on the sex discrimination claim.

The court also discussed the possibility that Naumovski could succeed on a sex-stereotyping claim; i.e., “Norris and Scholl stereotyped Naumovski based on her sex (possibly in combination with other characteristics) as more likely to have engaged in a romantic or sexual relationship with J.W.  Defendants then fired Naumovski (at least in part) because of their wrongful and discriminatory belief that she engaged in sexual impropriety with a student and, subsequently, attempted to conceal that stereotyping played any role in their termination decision.”  While the court agreed that such a theory might work in some cases, “Naumovski cannot succeed on such a theory” because of the “but-for” proof requirement for a constitutional violation.  In order to prevail, “Naumovski must establish that a reasonable jury could find that Defendants would not have terminated her based on their stated reasons alone.  To be sure, there may well be cases in which misconduct findings based on sex stereotyping meet the ‘but-for’ discrimination standard,” Cabranes continued.  “Here, however, we do not think that the evidence, even construed in the light most favorable to Naumovski, satisfies that standard.”  Cabranes gives an extended explanation for this conclusion, noting in particular that “Naumovski does not materially dispute that Scholl’s personality and coaching style clashed with her own,” which on its own would be a legitimate reason to let go an assistant coach who was an at-will employee.

Turning to the perceived sexual orientation discrimination claim, Cabranes came to the issue of most direct relevance to Law Notes: whether public officials enjoy qualified immunity from constitutional liability for discriminating against their employees because of actual or perceived sexual orientation.  He pointed out that if the district court was relying on the 2nd Circuit’s 2018 Zarda decision for this proposition, “it erred for at least two reasons.”  First, Zarda was a statutory interpretation case under Title VII, not a constitutional case, thus the Circuit’s decision that discrimination “because of sex” under Title VII includes discrimination because of sexual orientation was not a ruling the sexual orientation claims should be treated the same as sex discrimination claims under the 14th Amendment.  Second, the conduct at issue in this case (2009-2010) predated Zarda by many years.  Given the 2nd Circuit’s pre-Zarda caselaw, Cabranes pointed out, at the time Naumovski was fired, “the ‘clearly established law’ … was that sexual orientation discrimination was not a subset of sex discrimination.”

“Nor could the District Court rely on freestanding constitutional principles separate from Zarda,” continued Cabranes.  “To date, neither this court nor the Supreme Court has recognized Sec. 1983 claims for sexual orientation discrimination in public employment.  Moreoever, when the conduct in this case occurred, neither of the Supreme Court’s landmark same-sex marriage cases – United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges – had been decided.  It was, therefore, not yet clear that all state distinctions based on sexual orientation were constitutionally suspect.”  At this point, Cabranes wrote a footnote acknowledging the existence of Romer and Lawrence, but distinguishing them based on Naumovski’s factual allegations. Cabranes’ opinion does not explicitly state that a public official would not enjoy qualified immunity today from an adverse personnel decision based on sexual orientation, but he implies that after Windsor and Obergefell, “state distinctions based on sexual orientation” are “constitutionally suspect,” a point that some scholars have argued, attempting to give more teeth to Justice Kennedy’s opinions in those cases than some might see in them.  To be clear, neither of those cases explicitly states that government distinctions based on sexual orientation are to be treated the same as sex discrimination cases and enjoy heightened scrutiny under the 14th Amendment.  Justice Kennedy did not employ that vocabulary, and arguably placed more weight on the liberty interest in marriage in those cases.

The court also found that Norris and Scholl would clearly enjoyed qualified immunity from a claim that their decision relied on biased student claims against Naumovski, and also that a constitutionally-based hostile environment claim based on sex or perceived sexual orientation in a public employment context was not clearly actionable under 42 USC 1983, as the precedential basis for such claims has been developed thus far only under Title VII.

Summarizing the Court of Appeals holding, Cabranes wrote that Section 1983 claims for discrimination in employment require plaintiffs to establish that the defendants’ discriminatory intent was a “but-for” cause of the adverse employment action, that because of the intent requirements under the Equal Protection clause, a Section 1983 claim for employment discrimination “cannot be based on a respondeat superior or ‘cat’s paw’ theory to establish a defendant’s liability (thus ruling out liability for Scholl and Norris based on complaints by discriminatory students), and defendants were entitled to qualified immunity because, “even when interpreted in the light most favorable to Naumovski, the record cannot support the conclusion that they violated her ‘clearly established’ constitutional rights.”

Naumovski is represented by A. J. Bosman of Rome, N.Y.  Judge Cabranes was appointed by President Bill Clinton.  The other two judges on the 2nd Circuit panel were Ralph Winter (Reagan) and Renee Raggi (George W. Bush).

Second Round of Briefing in LGBT Title VII Cases Before the Supreme Court Completed During August

Posted on: September 7th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

On October 8, the second day of hearings in the Supreme Court’s October 2019 Term, the Court will hear arguments in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, Case No. 17-1618, and Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda, Case No. 17-1623, appeals from the 11th and 2nd Circuits on the question whether sexual orientation discrimination claims are actionable as sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Aimee Stephens, Case No. 18-107, an appeal from the 6th Circuit on the question whether gender identity discrimination claims are actionable as sex discrimination under Title VII.  The Court consolidated the two sexual orientation discrimination cases, in which the plaintiff-employee is appealing in Bostock and the defendant-employer is appealing in Altitude Express, for a single argument of one hour.  The argument in Harris Funeral Homes, in which the employer is appealing, will be argued next.  Transcripts of the arguments will be posted on the Supreme Court’s website shortly after each argument has concluded (usually within an hour or two), and links to audio recordings of the arguments will be made available on the Court’s website later in the week.

Harris Funeral Homes presents an unusual situation; the victorious party in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), is represented in the Supreme Court by the Solicitor General, who, reflecting the change of administration since the original complaint in this case was filed by the EEOC, is now joining with the employer to ask the Court to reverse the 6th Circuit.  The only party defending the 6th Circuit’s decision is the charging party in the EEOC proceeding, transgender funeral director Aimee Stephens, who intervened as a co-appellant in the 6th Circuit, is named as a Respondent in Harris Funeral Homes’ cert. petition, and is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. Harris Funeral Homes is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the conservative religious litigation group that is a frequent litigant opposing LGBT rights in the courts.

For purposes of briefing, the Court decided to treat all the employee-plaintiffs in the three cases as if they were Petitioners (although only Bostock is a Petitioner in the Supreme Court), and the three employer-defendants as if they were Respondents (even though two of them are actually Petitioners).  Thus, the first round of briefing, which was concluded early in July, consisted of the main briefs for Gerald Bostock, the Estate of Donald Zarda, and Aimee Stephens, and the amicus briefs (more than 40) filed in support of their claims that Title VII does extend to sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination claims.  The second round of briefing, which concluded during August, consisted of the briefs for the three employers – Clayton County, Georgia; Altitude Express; and Harris Funeral Homes; and the EEOC, which is technically a respondent even though the government, as such, is now siding with the Petitioner.

Interestingly, despite earnest efforts by the Solicitor General’s Office, the EEOC’s General Counsel, who would ordinarily be a signatory on the brief purporting to represent their agency, did not join in the submission of the government’s brief, since as of the date of filing the EEOC had not disavowed its position that gender identity discrimination claims are covered by Title VII.  Indeed, the amicus brief filed by the Solicitor General in the sexual orientation cases on behalf of the employer also lacked the EEOC’s signature, since the agency that enforces Title VII (and whose interpretation of the statute is entitled to judicial deference, under existing precedents), has not disavowed its position (argued as an agency amicus in the 2nd Circuit) that Title VII covers sexual orientation claims.  Quite a tangle for the Supreme Court to confront. During oral argument of Zarda v. Altitude Express in the 2nd Circuit, the en banc bench reflected some puzzlement and bemusement about being confronted with a lawyer from the S.G.’s office and a lawyer from the EEOC arguing against each other.

Simultaneously with the filing of the government’s brief, the Solicitor General filed a request that argument time be divided evenly (15 minutes each) between the Solicitor General’s office and ADF, counsel for Harris Funeral Homes.

Law Notes gave an overview of the first round of filings in our August 2019 issue.  Herewith is a brief summary of the second round of filings.

Altitude Express’s brief was signed by Saul D. Zabell, Counsel of Record who has represented the company throughout this litigation, and Ryan T. Biesenbach of Zabell & Collotta, P.C., a Bohemia, N.Y., law firm.  It predictably argues that the meaning of Title VII must be its “original public meaning” – the meaning that members of the public would attribute to the statutory language when it was enacted by Congress in 1964.  The brief claims that the Supreme Court has never interpreted Title VII in a manner that “conflicts” with “the original public meaning of ‘sex’.”  It also describes as “wrong” the various legal theories offered by Bostock for construing “sex” to include “gender identity.”  It argues that subsequent legislative developments – the repeated introduction of bills to amend federal anti-discrimination law to add “sexual orientation” that have never achieved enactment, as well as the enactment of some other statutes that use ‘sexual orientation’ such as the Hate Crimes Law – show Congress’s understanding that the term must be used to address such discrimination, noting also that after the EEOC and several lower federal courts had rejected sexual orientation discrimination claims in the early period of Title VII’s history, Congress passed a package of amendments to Title VII in 1991 but did not overrule any of those rulings legislatively.  The brief also rejects certain other arguments that some lower court judges had accepted as reasons for extending Title VII to cover sexual orientation claims.  None of these arguments was new or unanticipated, and they were all rejected in one way or another not only in the 2nd Circuit (en banc) but also in the 7th Circuit (en banc) in 2017 in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, a case where the employer decided not to seek Supreme Court review.

Clayton County’s brief (Bostock), signed by Counsel of Record Jack R. Hancock and other attorneys from the Forest Park, Georgia, law firm of Freeman Mathis & Gary LLP, carries the same argument headings as Altitude Express’s brief.  Indeed, they appear to be a joint product, making identical arguments.

The main brief that drew most of the press commentary when it was filed, of course, was the Solicitor General’s brief, on which S.G. Noel J. Francisco is Counsel of Record.  The other signatories are attorneys in the Solicitor General’s office and main Justice Department.  As noted above, and deemed newsworthy, no attorneys from the EEOC signed this brief which is presented as the brief of the Federal Respondent (which, technically, is the EEOC).   The brief urges the Court to adopt a narrow interpretation of key Title VII Supreme Court precedents on which the EEOC had relied in the 6th Circuit, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins and Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, contending that the 6th Circuit had extended them beyond their holdings to reach the conclusion that allowing gender identity discrimination claims is consistent with Supreme Court precedent.  Most of the arguments in the brief are variants of one or more of the arguments in the Altitude Express and Clayton County briefs, effectively countering the EEOC’s justifications for applying Title VII to gender identity claims in Macy v. Holder, EEOC Doc. 0120120821, 2012 WL 1435995 (2012).  Even though the EEOC has not overruled Macy, it is anticipated that it may do so in due course as the new majority resulting from Trump’s appointments to the Commission either rules on a federal sector gender identity discrimination case, proposes a new regulatory interpretation, or takes a position in litigation in the lower federal courts embracing a change of position.  The Commission could just instruct its regional offices to dismiss gender identity claims on jurisdictional grounds, similar to the action of the U.S. Department of Education which now refuses to process gender identity discrimination claims under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

The brief on behalf of Harris Funeral Homes, submitted by Alliance Defending Freedom, attracted comparatively little attention, with the Solicitor General being the “elephant in the room.”  Mainstream press coverage clearly sees Harris as part of the Trump Administration’s overall opposition to transgender rights as part of its systemic attempt to reverse the civil rights positions taken by the Obama Administration. Clearly, the president feels that he was elected to overturn everything that the Obama Administration did, if possible.  This was certainly reflected in his transgender military service ban and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ October 2017 memorandum disavowing the Obama Administration’s positions on both sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.

Beginning on August 16 and extending through August 23, the Supreme Court clerk added to the docket forty amicus briefs supporting Harris Funeral Homes’ (and the Solicitor General’s) position that Title VII does not extend to gender identity discrimination claims.  Some were from the “usual suspects” familiar to anybody who had scanned the amicus lists in Obergefell and Windsor, the cases concerning marriage equality.  They include states whose anti-discrimination laws do not cover gender identity, Republican members of Congress, companies that don’t want to be forced to employ transgender people, individual legal scholars, polemicists, think tanks and policy institutes, and, of course, religious entities that argue that requiring employers to accommodate transgender people excessively burdens their religious freedom.  (In Harris, the owner of the funeral homes stated his religious beliefs as a justification for his refusal to continue employing the plaintiff after she wrote to him about her gender transition. As a result of this, the district court ruled in favor of Harris Funeral Homes in reliance on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, employing an interpretation subsequently rejected by the 6th Circuit.  Surprisingly, in light of its religious freedom orientation, ADF did not include in its cert petition a question about the application of the RFRA to this case, so technically the religious arguments made by many of the amici are not pertinent to the questions on which cert was granted.

Particular press attention was drawn to briefs of some feminist groups who are particularly perturbed about any legal recognition of transgender women, making arguments that fall far outside the mainstream of the professional medical and mental health communities about the nature of human sexuality, contending that transgender women are men in drag who should not be given admission to women-only spaces and should not be accorded the treatment under anti-discrimination law that has been accorded to women.  Vox.com devoted a lengthy article to explaining the opposition of some feminist groups to transgender rights.  See Katelyn Burns, The Rise of Anti-Trans ‘Radical’ Feminists, Explained” (posted September 5, 2019).

Also during August, 24 amicus briefs (including one from the Solicitor General, as the federal government is not a party in the sexual orientation cases) were filed in support of the employers in the sexual orientation discrimination cases, Bostock and Altitude Express.  Of course, the EEOC’s legal staff is not represented among the signers of the Solicitor General’s amicus brief, again a newsworthy absence denoting that at least as of the time when briefs were due, the agency had not abandoned its position in Baldwin v. Foxx, EEOC No. 0120133080, 2015 WL 4397641 (2015), that Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination claims.  Many of these amicus briefs were noted as addressing all three pending Title VII cases and thus were also filed and counted among the Harris Funeral Home amicus briefs.  When it announced the filing schedule, the Court also directed that amicus briefs for the Altitude Express case were to be filed on the Bostock docket. The same mix of amici that one finds on the Harris Funeral Homes docket generally show up on the Bostock list, minus those groups who have a specific focus on opposing transgender rights.  The arguments in the amicus briefs are similar as well, although, of course, the argument that gender is identified at birth is permanent and not changeable is absent here, while it predominates in many of the amicus briefs filed in Harris Funeral Homes.

Several of these amicus briefs emanate from groups that may have been formed for the specific purpose of filing amicus briefs in these cases.  All of the docketed amicus briefs can be examined on the Supreme Court’s website, where they are available to be downloaded in pdf format.

The deadline for the third round of briefing set by the Court is September 16, when Reply Briefs can be filed, responding to the briefs that were filed in August.  Reply briefs, if any, will be reported in the October issue of Law Notes.

8th Circuit Revives Videographer’s 1st Amendment Claim Against Having to Make Same-Sex Wedding Videos

Posted on: August 29th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit ruled by a vote of 2-1 on August 23 that a commercial videographer could assert a 1st Amendment claim that it was privileged to refuse to make wedding videos for same-sex couples, as an exemption from compliance with Minnesota’s Human Rights Act, which expressly forbids public accommodations from discrimination because of a customer’s sexual orientation.  Telescope Media Group v. Lucero, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 25320, 2019 WL 3979621.  The court reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge John R. Tunheim, which had dismissed the videographer’s suit seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief against Minnesota’s Department of Human Rights.  See Telescope Media Group v. Lindsey, 271 F. Supp. 3d 1090 (D. Minn. 2017).

Circuit Judge David Stras, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote for the majority, which included Circuit Judge Bobby Shepard, an appointee of President George W. Bush.  The dissent was by Circuit Judge Jane Kelly, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, and is the only Democratic appointee now sitting on the 8th Circuit in either an active or senior capacity.  District Judge Tunheim was appointed by President Bill Clinton.

Carl and Angel Larsen, who make commercial videos under the corporate name of Telescope Media Group, decided they wanted to expand their business into wedding videos, but because of their religious beliefs, they did not want to get into this line of work if they would be required to make videos for same-sex weddings.  Anticipating that a refusal to make such videos would bring them into conflict with Minnesota’s Human Rights Law, the filed an action in federal district court seeking a ruling that they had a 1st Amendment right to refuse such business.  They argued that making wedding videos is an expressive activity protected by the Free Speech Clause, and that, although the Supreme Court has ruled that people are not excused from complying with neutral state laws of general application based on their religious beliefs, there was an argument that when a religious free exercise claim is intermingled with a claim based on another constitutional right (in this instance, free speech), the state may be required to accommodate the person claiming constitutional protection against enforcement of the state law.

Judge Tunheim rejected their constitutional arguments, dismissing their lawsuit, and they appealed to the 8th Circuit.  Their case presents a parallel to one of the earliest appellate rulings rejecting a constitutional exemption from complying with a state public accommodations law on similar facts: Elane Photography, LLC v. Willock, 309 P. 3d 53 (N.M. 2013), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 1787 (2014).  In that case, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that a commercial wedding photographer who refused to make a photo album for a lesbian couple celebrating their commitment ceremony did not enjoy a 1st Amendment free speech or free exercise exemption from a state law banning sexual orientation discrimination.  That court also rejected the photographer’s claim under New Mexico’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, finding that complying with the state’s anti-discrimination law would not substantially burden the photographer’s freedom of religion. The U.S. Supreme Court denied Elane Photography’s petition to review the New Mexico court’s ruling.

Judge Stras’s opinion based its conclusion on a conflation of the Larsens’ business with the film studies that make movies for public exhibition.  During oral argument, it was reported, the Larsen’s activities in making a video were likened to the work of prominent film producers/directors like Steven Spielberg.  This was a specious comparison, not because Spielberg is a great filmmaker, but because the Larsen’s do not produce feature films or documentaries aimed at a public market, in which the content of the film is the speech of the filmmaker.  Rather, they make films for hire, in order to communicate the message of the customer who hires them.

Stras wrote: “The Larsens . . . use their ‘unique skills to identify and tell compelling stories through video,’ including commercials, short films and live-event productions.  They exercise creative control over the videos they produce and make ‘editorial judgments’ about ‘what events to take on, what video content to use, what audio content to use, what text to use . . ., the order in which to present content, whether to use voiceovers.”  In other words, they exercise their professional judgment to make the films ordered by their customers, but the customers who are paying to have the films made ultimately determine what the message of the film will be.  The Larsens’ role is to translate that message into an effect filmic presentation.

In describing their contemplated move into making wedding videos, they want these videos to “capture the background stories of the couples’ love leading to commitment, the [couples’] joy . . . the sacredness of their sacrificial vows at the altar, and even the following chapters of the couples’ lives.”

“The Larsens believe that the videos, which they intend to post and share online, will allow them to reach ‘a broader audience to achieve maximum cultural impact’ and ‘affect the cultural narrative regarding marriage.’”  Presumably, they hoped to tap into the burgeoning on-line phenomenon of shared wedding videos, which seem to have a considerable audience.  But their representation by Alliance Defending Freedom suggests an ulterior motive, that the Larsens have volunteered (or were recruited) to be plaintiffs as part of ADF’s strategy to get a case to the Supreme Court in hopes of broadening the rights of religious business owners to avoid complying with anti-discrimination laws, and perhaps even getting the Court to overrule its precedents denying religious free exercise exemptions from anti-discrimination laws, while at the same time creating a constitutional wedge issue for businesses whose goods or services might be characterized as “expressive.”

Even though the Larsens do not presently make wedding videos, and they do not claim that they have ever been approached to make a video of a same-sex wedding or threatened with prosecution for refusing to do so, the court first determined that they have standing to seek their declaratory judgment, because when the proposition was presented to officials of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, they made clear that a refusal to provide videography services to same-sex couples would be considered a violation of the state’s anti-discrimination law.  Thus, the Larsens claimed to the satisfaction of the 8th Circuit panel that they faced a credible threat of prosecution and had standing to bring the case.

Turning to the merits, Stras wrote, “The Larsens’ videos are a form of speech that is entitled to First Amendment protection. . .  although the Larsens do not plan to make feature films, the videos they do wish to produce will convey a message designed to ‘affect public attitudes and behavior.’  According to their complaint, they will tell ‘healthy stories of sacrificial love and commitment between a man and a woman,’ depicting marriage as a divinely ordained covenant, and oppose the ‘current cultural narratives about marriage with which they disagree.’ By design, they will serve as a ‘medium for the communication of ideas’ about marriage.  And like the creators of other types of films, such as full-length documentaries, the Larsens will exercise substantial ‘editorial control and judgment.’”  He concluded, “The videos themselves are, in a word, speech.”

Stras insisted that applying the Minnesota Human Rights Act to the Larsens’ business “is at odds with the ‘cardinal constitutional command’ against compelled speech.  The Larsens to not want to make videos celebrating same-sex marriage, which they find objectionable.  Instead, they wish to actively promote opposite-sex weddings through their videos, which at a minimum will convey a different message than the videos the MHRA would require them to make.”

Stras insisted that this case fell into line with various U.S. Supreme Court precedents blocking the government from compelling a private actor to express a message they don’t want to express, citing, among other cases, Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, where the Court recognized the Scouts’ 1st Amendment right to ban gay men from serving as volunteer leaders of Scout troops.  In that case, the Court said that requiring the Scouts to let out gay James Dale be an assistant scoutmaster would be compelling them to communicate a message of approval for homosexuality.  The ruling in that case was by a vote of 5-4, overruling a 4-3 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court.  Stras also placed great weight on the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hurley v. GLIB, holding that Massachusetts could not compel the Catholic veterans association that ran Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade to include a gay Irish organization marching with a banner proclaiming their identity, because that would be forcing a message on to the parade that the organizers did not want to communicate.

The consequence of Stras’s analysis was not only that the Larsens can assert their free speech claim, but that the court must subject the application of the MHRA to strict scrutiny, placing the burden on the state to prove that requiring the Larsens to made same-sex wedding videos is necessary to fulfill a compelling government interest.

The court also accepted the Larsens’ argument that they should be allowed to assert a free exercise of religion claim “because it is intertwined with their free speech claim,” constituting a so-called “hybrid rights claim.”  The Supreme Court has mentioned that possibility in some cases, although it remains more theoretical than precedential at this point because most legal analysts have considered these mentions as not part of the holdings in the opinions where they appear.  But Stras pointed out two 8th Circuit decisions where that court has used the hybrid rights theory, making it fair game for litigation within the circuit.  The Supreme Court had articulated it as a possible exception to the general rule in Employment Discrimination v. Smith, speculating that had the plaintiff been able to claim a violation of some other constitutional right in addition to free exercise of religion, he might have a valid claim.  But Stras insisted that the Court’s comments actually related to the holdings in some prior cases.  However, he noted, “it is not at all clear that the hybrid-rights doctrine will make any real difference in the end” because the Court was already holding that the Larsens’ free speech claim “requires the application of strict scrutiny.”

The court did reject the Larsens’ alternative theories of freedom of association and equal protection. The former claim, if recognized, would render anti-discrimination laws virtually unenforceable, and the latter defeated by the general application of the MHRA, which did not on its face single out any particular group for disfavored treatment.  The court also rejected the Larsens’ argument that the law was unconstitutionally vague, or imposed unconstitutional conditions upon the operation of a business in the state.

The court sent the case back to the district with directions to “consider in the first instance whether the Larsens are entitled to a preliminary injunction, keeping in mind the principle that ‘when a plaintiff has shown a likely violation of his or her First Amendment rights, the other requirements for obtaining a preliminary injunction are generally deemed to have been satisfied.”

Judge Kelly’s dissent was several pages longer than the majority opinion.  “No court has ever afforded ‘affirmative constitutional protections’ to private discrimination,” she wrote.  “Indeed, caselaw has long recognized that generally applicable laws like Minnesota’s may limit the First Amendment rights of an individual in his capacity as the owner of a business serving the public.”  On this point, she cited Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion for the Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018), in which the reluctant baker had refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.  In that opinion, Kennedy acknowledged that religious and philosophical objects to same-sex marriage enjoy First Amendment protection, but “such objections do not allow business owners . . . to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”  Judge Kelley observed, “That well-established principle should have easily disposed of this case.”

She contested Judge Stras’s attempt to “recharacterize Minnesota’s law as a content-based regulation of speech.”  She argued that the law does not compel the Larsens to communicate any particular message about marriage.  “What they cannot do,” she wrote, “is to operate a public accommodation that serves customers of one sexual orientation but not others. And make no mistake,” she continued, “that is what today’s decision affords them license to do.”  She asserted that the conduct in which the Larsens wish to engage if they expand into the wedding video business would involve denying services based on the sexual orientation of customers.  “That the service the Larsens want to make available to the public is expressive does not transform Minnesota’s law into a content-based regulation, nor should it empower the Larsens to discriminate against prospective customers based on sexual orientation.”  The rest of her opinion takes much inspiration from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent from the Court’s holding in Masterpiece.

Pointing to an earlier ruling, she wrote, “The Supreme Court has already health that the MHRA is constitutional, in the process rejecting many of the same arguments that the court adopts today.  Just recently, it reaffirmed that, although ‘religious and philosophical objections [to same-sex marriage] are protected, it is a general rule that such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.’ The Supreme Court is free to revise or overturn its precedents,” she continued.  “We are not.  Rather than disturb bedrock principles of law, I would affirm the district court’s order in full.”

The state can seek review of this decision by the full bench of the 8th Circuit, but that circuit has an overwhelmingly Republican/conservative tilt at present.  Of the eleven active judges, only one, Judge Kelly, was appointed by a Democratic president.  Trump has managed to place four judges on the court, where all but one of the other judges was appointed by George W. Bush, with the senior-most of the active judges having been appointed by the first President Bush.  Clinton’s appointees have all died or retired.  Perhaps the state should apply directly to the Supreme Court for review, but who is to say that Justice Kennedy’s comments, relied upon by Judge Kelly, would find majority support on the Court now that Neil Gorsuch has replaced Kennedy?

9th Circuit Panel Orders Gender Confirmation Surgery for Transgender Inmate in Idaho

Posted on: August 28th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled on August 23 that the Idaho Department of Corrections violated the 8th Amendment rights of Adree Edmo, a transgender inmate, when it denied her gender confirmation surgery.  The court’s opinion, issued collectively by the three judges as “per curiam,” provides such an extensive discussion of the medical and legal issues that it could serve as a textbook for other courts.

The ruling is a particularly big deal because it is the first such wide-ranging appellate ruling in the nation’s largest circuit by population, as the 9th Circuit includes California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and Montana.  Other circuit courts are divided over whether transgender inmates may have a right to complete their transition surgically while incarcerated.

The three judges on the panel, Circuit Judges M. Margaret McKeown and Ronald M. Gould, and U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik of the Western District of Washington, were all appointed to the court in the late 1990s by President Bill Clinton.

The court’s ruling affirmed a May 2019 order by U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill, also a Clinton appointee, who issued the ruling after an extensive trial process with several expert witnesses and numerous amicus briefs.

The plaintiff, Adree Edmo, was designated male at birth but has viewed herself as female since age 5 or 6, according to the hearing record.  Edmo pled guilty in 2012 to a charge of sexual abuse of a 15-year-old boy at a house party.  At that time, Edmo was 21.  It was about that time that she resolved an internal struggle about gender identity and began living as a woman.  By the time of the trial court’s evidentiary hearing in this case, Edmo was 30, and due to be released from prison in 2021.

Edmo first learned the term “gender dysphoria” and what was involved in gender transition around the time of her incarceration.  Shortly after coming into the custody of the Idaho Department of Corrections, she was diagnosed with “gender identity disorder,” the term that was used in the prior edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the “Bible” for the psychiatric profession.  The latest edition of DSM changes the terminology to “gender dysphoria,” as being a more accurate characterization in the consensus view of the profession.  The diagnosing doctor was Dr. Scott Eliason, employed by Corizon, Inc., the medical contractor for the Idaho prison system.  A psychologist employed by Corizon, Dr. Claudia Lake, confirmed the diagnosis.

Edmo has changed her legal name and obtained a new birth certificate designating her as “female” to affirm her gender identity.  She has consistently tried to present as female throughout her incarceration, even though this has resulted in disciplinary measures as she continues to be housed in a male prison.  There is no dispute among the parties to this case, which include Corizon and the  Idaho Corrections Department, that Edmo suffers from gender dysphoria, which causes her to feel “depressed,” “disgusting,” “tormented” and “hopeless,” and this has moved her twice to attempt self-castration.

Although hormone therapy has helped to ameliorate the effects of her gender dysphoria, it has not completely alleviated the condition, and much of her distress focuses on her male genitalia, the removal of which is her dedicated goal, as reflected in her castration attempts.   The expert testimony indicated that removal of the male genitalia would make it possible to reduce the level of her hormone therapy, as her body would no longer be producing the male hormone testosterone, and reduced hormone therapy would reduce side effects and be beneficial to her long-term health.

The main cause of dispute is that the Corizon doctors, under direction of the Idaho Corrections Department, have imposed standards going beyond those specified by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) for determining when an individual with gender dysphoria is eligible for surgery.  The state’s case here relies mainly on Dr. Eliason’s testimony and the standards he sought to impose.  Judge Winmill concluded that those standards failed in certain respects to conform to the medical consensus as represented by the WPATH standards and that, as to one of Eliason’s standards, his diagnosis fails to give adequate weight to Edmo’s self-castration attempts.

Experts testifying at the district court hearing included two doctors extremely experienced with treating gender dysphoria, both of whom are active as WPATH members, who offered testimony that convinced Winmill that gender confirmation surgery is necessary for Edmo.  Winmill issued an injunction after the hearing ordering the state to provide the surgical procedure for Edmo, but the injunction was stayed while the state appealed to the 9th Circuit on an expedited schedule.

The appellate panel rejected all of the state’s objections to Judge Winmill’s ruling.  Under the Supreme Court’s 8th Amendment jurisprudence, a prison system will be found to violate the 8th Amendment if it displays deliberate indifference to an inmate’s serious medical condition by failing to provide necessary treatment.  A large amount of judgment based on the facts of the individual case goes into determining whether the prison’s failure to provide a particular procedure to a particular inmate violates the Constitution, and some courts have upheld refusal to provide surgery when medical experts disagree about the appropriate treatment for a prisoner’s particular medical condition, finding that a disagreement among experts bars the conclusion that the prison is being deliberately indifferent to the inmate’s medical needs.  The state, citing its own experts, pushed for this conclusion, but the court identified the state’s experts as underqualified and their views as “outliers” from the professional consensus.

In backing up Judge Winmill’s conclusion, the 9th Circuit panel made clear that they were ruling based on the facts of this individual case, and not endorsing a general rule that transgender inmates are always entitled to surgery.  They found that the evidence shows that not all people who identify as transgender suffer from gender dysphoria, and that the degree of intensity of gender dysphoria can range from mild to severe.  Many transgender people do not desire surgery even though they have a gender dysphoria diagnosis, and sometimes other medical conditions cut against performing the surgery for health and safety reasons.

A major point of contention in this case is the specification in the WPATH standards that surgery should not be performed until the individual has experienced living consistent with their gender identity for at least a year.  Dr. Eliason’s interpretation of this requirement focused on living in a non-institutional setting for at least a year, considering the prison setting as “artificial” and not like the setting the inmate would encounter upon release from prison.  According to this view, the only inmates entitled to surgery would be those who had lived consistent with their gender identity for at least a year before they were incarcerated.  This would categorically rule out surgery for those who were first diagnosed with gender dysphoria after incarceration, such as Edmo, even though identified as female for many years before the crime for which she pled guilty.

The experts who testified on her behalf persuasively argued that it was possible for a transgender inmate to fulfill that requirement in prison, and pointed out that the WPATH standards state that the experiential year can take place while incarcerated.  Also, the court noted that Edmo’s persistent attempts to present as female, even in the face of hostility from corrections personnel, since 2012 would more than fulfill this requirement, since there was medical documentation that she has been presented as female since 2012.

This new ruling may set up the issue for Supreme Court review, because it sharply conflicts with a ruling earlier this year by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, Gibson v. Collier, which ruled that gender confirmation surgery is never required under 8th Amendment standards.  The Gibson ruling, in turn, relied heavily on an earlier ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, which held that the Massachusetts prison system did not have to provide surgery for Michelle Kosilek, a transgender inmate who had been sentenced to life without parole upon conviction of murdering her wife while presenting as male.  Kosilek went through years of litigation just to get hormone therapy, before then litigating for years for surgery. The 1st Circuit accepted the state’s testimony that hormone therapy was sufficient in her case and that in light of the nature of her offense, there would be enormous security problems in the prison system if she were to have surgery and then be transferred to a female prison.

The 4th Circuit has also ruled that a categorical rule against providing surgery for transgender inmates is unconstitutional, but that case did not involve an actual order that a prison system provide the surgery to a particular inmate.  This new 9th Circuit ruling sharpens the split with the 5th and 1st Circuits, raising the odds that a petition to the Supreme Court might be granted.  So far, the only Supreme Court ruling on the merits in a transgender case dates back several decades, when the Court ruled in a case involving a transgender inmate who was severely assaulted in prison that prison officials might be held to violate the 8th Amendment by failing to protect transgender inmates from serious injury while incarcerated.

In the course of its ruling, the court determined that Corizon, the health care contractor for the Idaho prisons, was not liable under the 8th Amendment.  Liability was focused on the Idaho Corrections Department itself and Dr. Eliason.

The court emphasized the urgency of providing surgery to Edmo, clearly signaling that it would not be receptive to requests for delay pending further appeal by the state.  As a practical matter, if the state cannot obtain an emergency stay, the surgery will go forward unless Idaho decides to do what California did in an earlier case where the 9th Circuit had refused to stay a district court’s order pending appeal: accelerate the inmate’s parole date to avoid having to provide the surgery!  Anticipating that this kind of ruling might come from the 9th Circuit in that earlier case, California revised its rules to drop its categorical ban on providing gender confirmation surgery to inmates, and has already provided the procedure to one inmate, the first known instance in which a state has actually provided the surgery.

Edmo is represented by a team of attorneys from California and Idaho law firms as well as the National Center for Lesbian Rights.  Attorneys from a wide variety of civil rights organizations represented the various amicus parties.  The struggle to obtain this decision and opinion was a very large team effort, resulting in an array of briefs that can be usefully deployed in future litigation in other circuits.

Federal Court Says Faith-Based Women’s Shelter in Anchorage is Not Subject To Public Accommodations Law

Posted on: August 26th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

Although the City of Anchorage, Alaska, has a public accommodations law that prohibits discrimination because of gender identity, a federal judge has ruled that the Downtown Hope Center, a faith-based non-profit organization that runs homeless shelters in the city, may be able to refuse to provide a place in its women’s shelter for transgender women.  The case is Downtown Soup Kitchen d/b/a Downtown Hope Center v. Municipality of Anchorage, 2019 WL 3769623 (D. Alaska, August 9, 2019).

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Sharon L. Gleason is based not on a religious exemption, but rather on the court’s suggestion that the shelter would not be considered a public accommodation under the municipal law.  The court was ruling on a motion by the shelter for a preliminary injunction against the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, temporarily barring it from enforcing the Anchorage Municipal Code (AMC) anti-discrimination provisions against the shelter pending a final ruling on the merits of the shelter’s lawsuit.

In order to rule on the motion, the judge had to decide whether the shelter was likely to succeed on the merits of its claim  that it is not subject to the AMC anti-discrimination provisions or, if subject to them, that it would enjoy a religious exemption from compliance.

“Hope Center maintains that its religious beliefs include that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift,” wrote the judge, “and that it is wrong for a person to deny his or her God-given sex.” The shelter argued that requiring it to house transgender women in its women’s shelter would be against the shelter’s “religious beliefs.”  But it also insisted throughout this case that it is not subject to Anchorage’s anti-discrimination ordinance, and that proved the winning argument at this stage of the litigation.

On Friday, January 26, 2019, at about 6 pm, the police brought “Jessie Doe,” who identifies as a transgender woman, to the Hope Center.  “Doe smelled strongly of alcohol, was very agitated, was aggressive in body language, and had an open wound above one eye,” wrote Gleason.  The director of the shelter, noting Doe’s condition, recommended that she go to the hospital for care of the eye wound. Doe agreed, and the shelter paid for a taxi to take her to the hospital.  The next day, Doe returned to the shelter at about 2 pm and sought admission, but was denied under the shelter’s rule that Saturday admissions before 5:45 pm were limited to those who had stayed at the shelter Friday night.  The director later learned that Doe had started a fight at another shelter, which had banned her until July 4, 2018.

Doe filed a complaint with the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission, claiming that the shelter was a public accommodation and had actually excluded her because of her sex and gender identity in violation of the AMC.  The Commission notified the shelter of the complaint and scheduled a fact-finding conference.  The shelter director wrote back that the shelter did not consider itself to be a public accommodation, that it had not discriminated against Doe because of her gender identity, and that it “has First Amendment religious liberty and association rights to operate as it does.”

Several exchanges of correspondence ensued, and the Commission ultimately filed a complaint against Hope Center, claiming that its attorney had stated or implied in various media that transgender individuals would not be allowed to be sheltered at Hope Center, in potential violation of both the public accommodations provision and a provision banning discrimination by owners and operators of real property.  Ultimately, Hope Center filed its own lawsuit in federal court, claiming a violation of its 1st Amendment rights and reiterating its argument that it was not subject to the prohibitions in the city ordinance.  The shelter asked the court to declare that it was not subject to the ordinance.

The AMC makes it an “unlawful practice” for a “public accommodation” to deny services to somebody because of their sex or gender identity or to publish or circulate a policy denying services to people because of their sex or gender identity.  The ordinance defines a public accommodation as “any business or professional activity that is open to, accepts or solicits the patronage of, or caters or offers goods or services to the general public, subject only to the conditions and limitations established by law and applicable alike to all persons.”

The AMC also makes it an unlawful practice for the owner or operator of “real property” to refuse to sell, lease or rent, or to otherwise make unavailable, the real property to a person because of sex or gender identity, or to discriminate against a person because of sex or gender identity in a term, condition or privilege relating to the use of real property.  This provision lists specific exceptions to its coverage.  “Shelters for the homeless” are specifically listed as being exempt from the “real property” anti-discrimination provision.

Doe’s complaint filed with the Commission claimed a violation of the public accommodations provision, but did not mention the real property provision.  The Commission’s subsequent complaint invoked the real property provision as well.  Judge Gleason decided that the real property provision, and particularly its explicit exemption of homeless shelters, was relevant to the shelter’s claim that it was not subject to either provision.

Judge Gleason pointed out that she would not have to determine whether the shelter enjoys a constitutional free exercise privilege to deny access to a transgender person if she ultimately concluded that the shelter was not subject to the requirements of the anti-discrimination ordinance.

“It is clear from the structure and plain text of [the ordinance] that the drafters of the AMC intended to exempt homeless shelters from the prohibitions on conduct articulated” in the AMC section governing discrimination regarding real property.  “Furthermore,” wrote Gleason, “the Alaska Supreme Court has concluded that the purpose of that section ‘is to prohibit discrimination in the rental housing market.’  Applying the provision’s prohibitions to Hope Center’s homeless shelter would not further this purpose.  Hope Center is thus likely to succeed as to its contention that [the real property provision] does not apply to Hope Center’s homeless shelter.”

Judge Gleason observed that unlike the real property provision, the public accommodations provision “does not include language that expressly exempts homeless shelters from its prohibitions.  Nevertheless, Alaska’s rules of statutory interpretation and the structure of the Anchorage Municipal Code as a whole suggest that homeless shelters are not public accommodations as defined in [the public accommodations provision.]  For if the term ‘public accommodation’ . . . is read to apply to homeless shelters, then the exemption for homeless shelters contained in [the real property] provision would have no effect.  Pursuant to Alaska Supreme Court precedent, this court must ‘interpret each part or section of a statute [or municipal code] with every other part or section, so as to create a harmonious whole.’  To give effect to the exemption for homeless shelters contained in [the real property provision], the Court concludes that Hope Center is not an ‘owner or operation of a public accommodation’ within the meaning of [the public accommodation provision].”

Having reached this conclusion, Gleason opined that the shelter was not subject to the prohibition against discrimination in the AMC.

Her conclusion does not really make sense.  If the purpose of the real property provision is to “prohibit discrimination in the rental housing market,” it makes total sense for the AMC to exclude homeless shelters from coverage under the real property provision, since they are not part of the “rental housing market.”  That says nothing about whether they should be covered by the public accommodations provision.  The point is that homeless shelters do not provide rental housing, they provide a service of temporary shelter to people who cannot afford housing.  So it makes total sense to treat them as public accommodations, as they provide a service to the public.  The commission should seek to appeal this ruling.

However, having concluded that the AMC does not apply to the shelter, Judge Gleason went on to accept the shelter’s argument that failing to issue a preliminary injunction would result in irreparable harm to the shelter, noting that courts have found that a violation of constitutionally protected religious freedom rights constitutes an irreparable injury.  The court characterized a preliminary injunction in this case as ‘reserving the status quo’ pending a final decision on the merits of the case.

Also, as a result of her conclusion that the exemption from the real property provision required an exemption from the public accommodations provision, the judge concluded that “the issuance of a preliminary injunction in this instance would not unduly limit Anchorage’s ability” to enforce its anti-discrimination ordinance, “as the actions Hope Center seeks to enjoin appear to be beyond the scope of the relevant provisions.”  She also concluded that because, in her opinion, the AMC provisions do not apply to the Center, a preliminary injunction against enforcing anti-discrimination requirements against the shelter “will not significantly curtail the public interest.”  On the other hand, prosecution of the anti-discrimination complaints by the Commission might, according to the shelter’s allegations, adversely affect its ability to provide shelter to homeless women.

The court’s conclusion is subject to sharp criticism.  The exemption language in the real property provision shows that the legislators knew how to exempt a particular kind of entity from coverage of an anti-discrimination provision, so the fact that they did not include such a specific exemption in the public accommodations provision should reflect an intention to treat homeless shelters the same as other entities that provide services to the public.  And, the reasons for exempting homeless shelters from the real property provisions do not support exempting them from the public accommodations provisions.

The Commission had also argued in opposition to the preliminary injunction that the court should abstain from issuing any orders in this case rather than interfere with the ongoing process of the Commission in handling the complaints that have been filed, but Judge Gleason refused to abstain, even though generally federal courts will abstain from interfering with ongoing state administrative proceedings before they have reached a conclusion, unless the operation of the state proceeding would impair the exercise of a federally protected right, and even though the Commission said that it would not take any action against the shelter as long as this lawsuit had not been finally decided by the federal court.

The federal court’s interpretation of state and local laws is not binding on the state courts.  The Anchorage Commission can seek a review of this holding from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over the federal courts in Alaska.  That court might consider it appropriate to refer the question of interpretation of the AMC to the Alaska Supreme Court.

Judge Gleason was nominated by President Barack Obama and took the bench in 2012.  She is the first woman to serve as a federal district judge in Alaska.

Federal Court Permanently Enjoins Wisconsin Medicaid from Enforcing State Statutory Exclusion of Coverage for Gender Transition

Posted on: August 26th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

Last year, U.S. District Judge William M. Conley granted a preliminary injunction to several named plaintiffs in a case challenging a 1996 amendment to Wisconsin’s Medicaid statute under which transgender Medicaid participants were denied coverage for their gender transitions.  At that time, the court had concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to win their case on the merits and that delaying their access to gender transition coverage pending a final ruling on the merits would cause them irreparable injury, far outweighing any harm to the state.  The court refused to stay its preliminary injunction pending a possible appeal.  On August 16, Judge Conley issued his final ruling on the merits in the case, having in the interim certified it as a class action extending to all transgender people in the state who relied on Medicaid for their health care coverage, and making the injunction permanent.  The judge ordered the parties to “meet and confer” within 14 days on the scope of relief and final wording of an injunction.  Flack v. Wisconsin Department of Health Services, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 139388, 2019 WL 3858297 (W.D. Wis., Aug. 16, 2019).

Judge Conley premised his ruling on three sources of law: Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, the “Availability and Comparability” provisions of the Medicaid Act, and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  Providing three independent and equal bases for the ruling makes it eminently defensible should the state decided to seek review at the 7th Circuit.  In this connection, the 7th Circuit has previously found thta government policies that disadvantage transgender people may violate the Equal Protection Clause, and it has adopted an interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 that accepts the contention that a federal law banning sex discrimination would extend to gender identity discrimination, although this holding might be adversely affected by a Supreme Court ruling under Title VII in a pending case from the 6th Circuit, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. EEOC, to be argued on October 8.

Judge Conley accepted the plaintiffs’ contention that the standards of care for gender dysphoria published by the World Professional Association of Transgender Health (WPATH), most recently updated in 2011, as supplemented by clinical guidelines on hormone treatment for gender dysphoria published in 2017 by the Endocrine Society, represent a medical consensus recognized by numerous professional health care associations and many, many court decisions, defining the standard of care in the context of any dispute about medically necessary treatment for gender dysphoria.  There is near-unanimity among federal courts at this point that gender dysphoria can be a serious medical condition and that, depending on the symptoms of the individual transgender person, various forms of treatment involved in transition, including hormone therapy and gender confirmation surgery (GCS), may be medically necessary.  The published standards emphasize, as does Judge Conley, that not every person who identifies as transgender experiences gender dysphoria (a “disconnect” between their gender identity and their anatomy), and that there is a range of severity, so not every person with gender dysphoria will necessarily seek GCS.  The Medicaid program’s coverage should depend upon competent medical professionals diagnosing gender dysphoria in the individual case and determining that hormone therapy and or GCS are medically necessary for the individual in question.

A significant problem for the defendants in this case, who include various officials as well as the state’s health services department, was that the legislature, evidently for political reasons, voted in 1996 to forbid the use of state Medicaid funds for gender transition, even though the particular treatments and procedures involved remain covered for a variety of other medical conditions.  For example, somebody suffering a severe hormone deficiency could obtain hormone replacement therapy under Medicaid, and a woman with breast cancer would be covered for a mastectomy, while transgender people would be denied coverage for hormone therapy or mastectomies, even though there was a medical consensus that these treatments were necessary to deal with their gender dysphoria.  The legislature did not undertake any serious study of the expenses of providing such treatment or of the professional medical standards in effect for treating gender dysphoria at that time.  The state tried to defend the statute in this case by coming up with various post hoc arguments that were easily discredited by the court, which observed that the state had failed to present credible expert testimony that there was a sound medical reason to deny the specified procedures to individuals for whom it was medically necessary.

The bulk of Judge Conley’s opinion is devoted to describing the medical evidence in the case, much of it derived from expert testimony provided by the plaintiffs, whose two expert witnesses were experienced medical specialists who had treated hundreds of transgender individuals and who were well-recognized in their field.  The state’s response to this, from the point of view of litigation strategy, was pathetic.  It failed even to offer experts with facially relevant expertise to contest any of the medical evidence.  Indeed, officials of the Wisconsin Medicaid program conceded in their testimony that the WPATH standards describe safe and effective treatments for gender dysphoria in appropriate cases, and there was little dispute that the named plaintiffs qualified for these treatments but were denied coverage for them solely because of the statute.  The court also pointed out that the state had attempted to rely in its arguments on materials that could not have provided a basis for the statute when it was passed, because their publication post-dated it.  In addition, Judge Conley observed that scientific knowledge about gender identity had significantly moved on since the mid-1990s, making the treatments and procedures even safer and more effective today.

The defendants sought to rely on two decision from other circuits: Kosilek v. Spencer, 774 F.3d 63 (1st Cir. en banc, 2014), and Gibson v. Collier, 920 F.3d 212 (5th Cir. 2019), but Judge Conley concluded these rulings were not persuasive precedents for this case.

Kosilek culminated long-running litigation and was based on expert testimony presented to the trial court in 2006, predating the current WPATH and Endocrine Society standards.  Also, the en banc 1st Circuit, which was ruling on the question whether GCS was medically necessary in the 8th Amendment context of a state prisoner serving a life sentence for murder (and which, incidentally, was reversing a 3-judge panel decision in the plaintiff’s favor), was heavily influenced by prison security concerns raised by the state that are not relevant in to Medicaid.

As to Gibson, Judge Conley performed a total demolition job on the cock-eyed reasoning of the 5th Circuit panel, whose opinion was written by Trump appointee James Ho.  This was also a prisoner case, the issue being whether it violated the 8th Amendment for the state to maintain a categorical refusal to provide GCS to transgender inmates (unlike in Kosilek, where the court focused on the individual inmate rather than an explicitly categorical treatment ban).  Gibson was a pro se case at the trial level, where the unrepresented inmate was incapable of compiling a state-of-the-art record of expert medical testimony, leaving a factual record bare of the kind of detailed information available to Judge Conley in this case litigated by experience attorneys.  In the absence of such a record, Judge Ho invoked the 1st Circuit’s decision in Kosilek, with its reliance on out-of-date information.  Of course, unlike the present Medicaid case, a case involving a prison setting raises different issues.  On the other hand, Judge Conley’s opinion leaves little doubt that he found the 5th Circuit’s analysis unpersuasive on the key points in common: whether there is a medical consensus that GCS can be medically necessary and that it is a safe and effective treatment.

For the short Affordable Care Act portion of his analysis, Judge Conley refers the reader to his earlier preliminary injunction decision.  As to the Medicaid portion, he details the requirement under Medicaid to cover medically necessary treatments, and furthermore the specific ban on discriminating in coverage decisions depending on the diagnosis of the individual participant.  In the Equal Protection portion of the opinion, he explained that the parties agree that Equal Protection claims by transgender plaintiffs are subject to “some sort of heightened scrutiny,” requiring the state to take on the burden of proving that it has an “exceedingly persuasive” justification for carving out this particular exception from its Medicaid coverage.  The government’s justification, stated now in its defense of the 1996 enactment, was “containing costs and protecting public health in face of uncertainty.”  Conley found neither justification to be sufficient under heightened scrutiny.  For one thing, the state conceded that the legislature made no study prior to passing the statute, either of the costs involved in providing coverage or of the medical facts surrounding gender transition and available treatments.  The only cost projections introduced by the state now were undertaken in response to this litigation, two decades later, and showed that the additional cost to the state’s Medicaid budget on an annual basis amounted to little more than a rounding error.  And, the court observed, there was no credible evidence to support the contention that covering these procedures would endanger public health.

The court also rejected a “spending clause” constitutional argument raised for the first time in support of the state’s opposition to plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion: that it was somehow unfair to the state to impose this “new” burden on it as a matter of federal law when it wasn’t contemplated at the time the state agreed to expand the Medicaid program in response to the Affordable Care Act in 2014.   “Nonsense,” wrote the judge.  Too late, and too bad.

Plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from McNally Peterson, S.C, Milwaukee; Dane & Colfax PLLC, Washington; Abigail Koelzer Coursolle of the National Health Law Program, Los Angeles; and Catherine Anne McKee of the National Health Law Program, Washington.

2nd Circuit Endorses Narrow Interpretation of its Title VII LGBT-Rights Precedent

Posted on: August 16th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, sitting in Manhattan, observed in an opinion issued on August 12 that its historic ruling last year in Zarda v. Altitude Express, holding that sexual orientation discrimination violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, does not create a judicial precedent in the 2nd Circuit for purposes of the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause on the issue of sexual orientation discrimination.

This observation, in an opinion by Circuit Judge Jose A. Cabranes, came in a lawsuit by a woman who was fired early in 2010 from a position as assistant women’s basketball team coach at Binghamton State University in upstate New York after months of rumors that she had a romantic relationship with one of the women on the basketball team.  Naumovski v. Norris, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 23891, 2019 WL 3770193 (2nd Cir., Aug. 12, 2019). The plaintiff, Elizabeth Naumovski, who denied that there was any romantic relationship, sued Nicole Scholl, the head coach, and James Norris, the associate athletic director, who made the decision to fire her, claiming a violation of her rights under Title VII and the Equal Protection Clause.  Part of their defense to her constitutional claim was that they enjoyed “qualified immunity” from any personal liability for making the decision to fire her.  District Court Judge David N. Hurd refused to dismiss the claim without discussing the qualified immunity claim, and they appealed.

Under the Supreme Court’s decisions on state actor liability for violating constitutional rights, a government agency or entity such as a public university can only be held liable for its policies, not for discretionary decisions by its management employees.  That is, the doctrine of “respondeat superior,” under which private sector employers can be held liable for the actions of their employees, does not apply in this situation.  Since the University does not have an anti-LGBT employment policy, it cannot be held liable under the Equal Protection Clause, even if a court were to conclude that Ms. Naumovski’s sexual orientation was the reason for her discharge.

However, management employees such as Scholl and Norris can be sued for their decisions violating a public employee’s constitutional rights, if at the time they acted it was “clearly established” in law that the basis for their action was unconstitutional.  Consequently, in ruling on their motion to dismiss the Equal Protection claim against them, Judge Hurd had to determine whether at the time of the discharge in 2010, it was “clearly established,” either by U.S. Supreme Court decisions or 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals decisions, that employees of the state university enjoy constitutional protection from discrimination because of their sexual orientation.   If it was not “clearly established” at that time, Scholl and Norris should be shielded from liability by “qualified immunity,” and their motion for summary judgment should have been granted.

The 2nd Circuit ruled that the motion should have been granted.

“Naumovski’s complaint does not explicitly allege sexual orientation discrimination in its enumeration of her [federal] claims,” wrote Judge Cabranes. “Nevertheless, the District Court appears to have so interpreted her claims.  Indeed, the District Court concluded that ‘Plaintiff has established that she is a member of several protected classes including . . . being perceived as gay.’ We need not decide whether the District Court erred in so construing Naumovski’s complaint.  Even if Naumovski had stated a sexual orientation discrimination claim, Defendants would have qualified immunity from such a claim.”

The court said that any reliance by the district judge on the 2nd Circuit’s decision last year in Zarda v. Altitude Express “in recognizing Naumovski’s arguable sexual orientation discrimination claims” would be erroneous for two reasons.  First, Zarda was a Title VII (statutory) case, not a constitutional case.  Because Altitude Express is a private business, not a government entity, it could not be sued on a constitutional theory.  Furthermore, wrote Cabranes, the Zarda ruling “did not address whether the Constitution prohibits sexual orientation discrimination.  Thus, Zarda is only ‘clearly established law’ for statutory sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII.  It does not, however, ‘clearly establish’ constitutional sexual orientation discrimination claims.’”

This is quite disappointing, since the reasoning of Circuit Judge Robert Katzmann’s opinion in the Zarda case should apply equally as a matter of logical reasoning to the question whether sexual orientation discrimination is a subset of sex discrimination, and thus potentially a violation of the Equal Protection Clause.  Elsewhere in his opinion in this case, Judge Cabranes devoted attention to explaining the difference between proof of sex discrimination under Title VII as distinguished from the Equal Protection Clause.  Under Title VII, a defendant can be found to have violated the statute if an employee’s sex was a “motivating factor” in an employment decision, even though it was not the only factor supporting the decision.  By contrast, under the Supreme Court’s approach to Equal Protection, the plaintiff must prove that her sex was the “but-for” cause of the action she is contesting, and the defendant would escape liability if other reasons for its action would provide a valid non-discriminatory reason for the action.

Furthermore, Judge Cabranes pointed out, Zarda was decided in 2018, and Naumovski was discharged in 2010.  “Prior to Zarda,” he wrote, “our Court had expressly declined to recognize sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, much less the Constitution.  Thus, if anything, the ‘clearly established law’ at the time Defendants terminated Naumovski’s employment was that sexual orientation discrimination was not a subset of sex discrimination.  Insofar as the District Court relied on Zarda, therefore, Defendants were surely entitled to qualified immunity.”

The court also pointed out that Naumovski was fired before the Supreme Court had decided U.S. v. Windsor (2013) and Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).  “It was, therefore, not yet clear that all state distinctions based on sexual orientation were constitutionally suspect,” he asserted.  In a footnote, he conceded that in 1996 the Supreme Court had “already begun to scrutinize laws that reflected ‘animosity’ toward gays” when it declared unconstitutional a Colorado constitutional amendment that excluded gay people in that state from protection under state law. “Here, however,” he wrote, “Naumovski has alleged no such class-based animosity or desire to harm.”

Judge Cabranes concluded that even if it is possible that today a public official would not enjoy qualified immunity from constitutional liability for dismissing a public employee because of their sexual orientation, depending how one interprets the current state of affairs in the 2nd Circuit in light of Zarda and nationally in light of Windsor and Obergefell, “at the time of the challenged conduct here such a constitutional prohibition was not yet ‘clearly established.’”

The bottom line in Naumovski’s case is that constitutional claims against Binghamton University and the State University of New York (SUNY) as a whole are dismissed, but several statutory claims against the employers that were not dismissed by Judge Hurd remain in play.  Constitutional claims against Scholl and Norris are now dismissed on grounds of qualified immunity.

Naumovski is represented by A.J. Bosman of Rome, New York.  Scholl and Norris are represented by Margaret Joanne Fowler of Vestal, New York.  The other two judges on the 2nd Circuit panel are Senior Circuit Judges Ralph Winter and Renee Raggi.

Federal Court Rules for Gavin Grimm in Long-Running Virginia Transgender Bathroom Case

Posted on: August 10th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

After more than four years of litigation, there is finally a ruling on the merits in Gavin Grimm’s transgender rights lawsuit against the Gloucester County (Virginia) School Board.  On August 9, U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen granted Grimm’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the school district violated his rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by refusing to let the transgender boy use the boys’ restroom facilities while he was attending Gloucester High School and by refusing to update his official school transcript to conform to the “male” designation on his amended birth certificate.  Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, 2019 WL 3774118 (E.D. Va., Aug. 9, 2019).

In addition to awarding Grimm a symbolic damage recovery of $1.00, the court issued a permanent injunction requiring the School Board to update Grimm’s official records and provide “legitimate copies of such records” to Grimm by August 19.  Judge Wright Allen also ordered that the Board “shall pay Mr. Grimm’s reasonable costs and attorneys’ fees” in an amount to be determined.  In light of the length and complexity of this lawsuit, the fee award is likely to be substantial.

Grimm began his freshman year at Gloucester High School in 2013 listed as a girl on enrollment papers, consistent with his original birth certificate.  During spring of his freshman year, Grimm told his parents that he was transgender and he began therapy with Dr. Lisa Griffin, a psychologist experienced in transgender issues, who diagnosed gender dysphoria and put the diagnosis in a letter that Grimm later presented to school officials.  Also in 2014, Grimm legally changed his first name to Gavin and began using the mens’ restrooms “in public venues.”  Prior to the beginning of his sophomore year at Gloucester High, he and his mother met with a school guidance counselor, provided a copy of Dr. Griffin’s letter, and requested that Grimm be treated as a boy at school.

They agreed that Grimm would use the restroom in the nurse’s office, but he found it stigmatizing and inconvenient, making him late for classes.  After a few weeks of this, he met with the guidance counselor and sought permission to use the boys’ restrooms.  The request went up to the school’s principal, Nate Collins, who conferred with the Superintendent of Schools, Walter Clemons, “who offered to support Principal Collins’ final decision,” according to testimony in the court record.  Collins then gave Grimm the go-ahead to use the boys’ bathrooms, which he did for seven weeks without any incident.  Grimm had been given permission to complete his phys ed requirement through an on-line course and never used the boys’ locker room at school.

Word that a transgender boy was using the boys’ restrooms got out in the community and stirred up opposition from “adult members of the community,” who contacted school officials to demand that Grimm be barred from using the boys’ rooms.  The School Board devoted two meetings to the issue, finally voting in December 2014 to adopt a formal policy that the use of restroom and locker room facilities “shall be limited to the corresponding biological genders, and students with gender identity issues shall be provided an alternative appropriate private facility.”

The Board announced that it would construct some single-sex unisex restrooms in the high school, but until then Grimm would have to use the restroom in the nurse’s office.  There eventually were such unisex restrooms, but they were not conveniently located for use between classes and Grimm ended up not using them, finding a requirement to use them as stigmatizing.  Instead, he tried to avoid urinating at school and developed urinary tract infections, as well as suffering psychological trauma.

Meanwhile, at the end of his sophomore year in June 2015, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles issued Grimm a state ID card identifying him as male.  When he need brief hospitalization to deal with thoughts of suicide during his junior year, he was admitted to the boys’ ward at Virginia Commonwealth University’s hospital.  In June 2016, he had top surgery, and on September 9, 2016, the Gloucester County Circuit Court ordered the Health Department to issue him a new birth certificate listing him as male, referring to his surgery as “gender reassignment surgery” even though it did not involve genital alteration.  In October 2016, Grimm presented a photocopy of his new birth certificate to the school, but they refused to update his records to reflect male status, and his transcripts still identify him as female.

Grimm, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), filed his lawsuit on June 11, 2015, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in Norfolk.  The case was assigned to Senior District Judge Robert G. Doumar, who quickly granted the school district’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim and reserved judgment on Grimm’s constitutional claim while Grimm appealed the dismissal.  The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal, relying on an interpretation of Title IX endorsed by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice during the Obama Administration, and sent the case back to Judge Doumar, who issued a preliminary injunction on June 23, 2016, requiring the School Board to let Grimm use the boys’ restrooms.  Conveniently for the school board, this order came at the end of the school year, so they had several months of summer break to try to forestall having to let Grimm use the boys’ restroom when school resumed.  Although the 4th Circuit quickly turned down the Board’s motion to stay the injunction, an emergency application to the Supreme Court was granted on August 3, 2016, pending the filing of a petition for review by the School Board and guaranteeing that Grimm was unlikely to be able to use the boys’ restrooms during his senior year if review was granted by the Supreme Court.

Ultimately, the Board did filed its appeal, which was granted with argument set to take place in March 2017.  This timing would virtually guarantee that Grimm would not be able to use the boys’ restrooms at the high school before his graduation, since a case argued in March would not likely result in an opinion being issued until June.  Elections and fate intervened as well, as the new Trump Administration moved to “withdraw” the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX, on which the 4th Circuit had relied.  The Solicitor General advised the Supreme Court of this withdrawal and the Court took the case off the hearing calendar and sent it back to the 4th Circuit, which in turn sent it back to the district court.  Judge Doumar having retired, the case was reassigned to Judge Wright Allen.

Since Grimm had graduated by then, the School Board argued that his request for injunctive relief was moot, as he would no longer be attending Gloucester High School. The ACLU countered that the question of the restroom policy’s lawfulness was not moot, that Grimm as an alumnus would be barred from using the boys’ restroom when he returned to the school for public events, that Grimm was still entitled to a ruling on his claim for damages.  The district court refused to dismiss the case, and discovery went forward.  Although the lawsuit had already been to the 4th Circuit twice and to the Supreme Court, there still had not been any ultimate ruling on the merits of the case at that point.

On May 22, 2018, Judge Wright Allen issued a ruling denying the School Board’s motion to dismiss the case as moot, and she ruled that Grimm had a viable claim of sex discrimination under Title IX.  She also ruled at that time that the constitutional equal protection claim would be decided using “intermediate scrutiny,” which puts to the government the burden to show that its policy substantially advances an important government interest.  On February 19, 2019, the court allowed Grimm to file a new amended complaint adding the issue of the School Board’s refusal to issue a corrected transcript.

On July 23, the court heard arguments on new motions for summary judgment filed by both parties.  These motions were decided by Judge Wright Allen’s August 9 ruling, which also rejected most of the School Board’s objections to various items of evidence offered by Grimm – mainly letters and medical records documenting his gender dysphoria diagnosis and subsequent treatment – which were incorrectly described by the School Board as “expert testimony” that was not admissible through discovery.  The court agreed to the school board’s argument that documents relating to failed settlement discussions should be excluded from consideration.

As to the merits of Grimm’s Title IX claim, the court found that Grimm had been excluded from participation in an education program on the basis of sex when the School Board adopted a policy that would bar him from using the boys’ restrooms at the high school, that the policy harmed Grimm both physically and psychologically, and that because the Gloucester schools receive federal financial assistance, they are subject to Title IX.   Consequently, summary judgment should be granted to Grimm on his Title IX claim.

As to the Equal Protection claim, the court relied on a Supreme Court ruling concerning the exclusion of girls from Virginia Military Institute, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that in a sex-discrimination case involving “intermediate scrutiny,” the defendant bears the burden of “demonstrating that its proffered justification for its use of the classification is ‘exceedingly persuasive.’”  In this case, the Board’s justification was “an interest in protecting the privacy rights of students, specifically privacy interests that students have in protecting their unclothed bodies.”

Judge Wright Allen found that the Board had made “no showing that the challenged policy is ‘substantially related’ to protection of student privacy.”  She referred to the lack of any student complaints during the seven-week period that Grimm used the boys’ restrooms during his sophomore year and, she wrote, “The Board’s privacy argument also ignores the practical realities of how transgender individuals use a restroom.”  Common sense prevailed, as the judge quoted another trans bathroom court opinion: “When he goes into a restroom, the transgender student enters a stall, closes the door, relieves himself, comes out of the stall, washes his hands, and leaves.”

The Board’s witness at the summary judgment hearing, conceding that there was no privacy concern for other students when a transgender student walks into a stall and shuts the door, testified that “privacy concerns are implicated when students use the urinal, use the toilet, or open their pants to tuck in their shirts.  When asked why the expanded stalls and urinal dividers could not fully address those situations,” wrote the judge, “Mr. Andersen responded that he ‘was sure’ the policy also protected privacy interests in other ways, but that he ‘couldn’t think of any other off the top of his head.’  This court is compelled to conclude that the Board’s privacy argument ‘is based upon sheer conjecture and abstraction,’” this time referring to the 7th Circuit ruling in Ash Whitaker’s trans bathroom case.

Judge Wright Allen also pointed out that although trans high school students have not had genital surgery, if they are taking hormones they are developing secondary sex characteristics of the gender with which they identify.  “If exposure to nudity were a real concern,” she wrote, “forcing such a transgender girl to use male restrooms could likely expose boys to viewing physical characteristics of the opposite sex. From this perspective, the Board’s privacy concerns fail to support the policy it implemented.”

The court concluded that the School Board’s policy must be found unconstitutional, pointing out, in addition, that the Board’s refusal to change the gender indication on Grimm’s school records “implicates no privacy concerns.”  The Board had contended that there were some doubts about the validity of the new birth certificate, because the photocopy they were provided was marked “Void.”  This was explained away by testimony from the government official responsible for issuing the documents.  It seems that all but the original would be marked “Void,” and that Grimm has a valid, authentic birth certificate identifying him as male, which the School Board should have honored.

Judge Wright Allen acknowledged the difficult task the School Board faced in deciding how to proceed during the fall of 2014.  She wrote, “The Board undertook the unenviable responsibility of trying to honor expressions of concern advanced by its constituency as it navigated the challenges represented by issues that barely could have been imagined or anticipated a generation ago.  This Court acknowledges the many expressions of concern arising from genuine love for our children and the fierce instinct to protect and raise our children safely in a society that is growing ever more complex.  There can be no doubt that all involved in this case have the best interests of the students at heart.”  However, this was no excuse for imposing a discriminatory and unconstitutional policy on Grimm.

“However well-intentioned some external challenges may have been,” Wright Allen continued, “and however sincere worries were about possible unknown consequences arising from a new school restroom protocol, the perpetuation of harm to a child stemming from unconstitutional conduct cannot be allowed to stand.  These acknowledgements are made in the hopes of making a positive difference to Mr. Grimm and to the everyday lives of our children who rely upon us to protect them compassionately and in ways that more perfectly respect the dignity of every person.”

Grimm had long since disclaimed any demand for financial compensation for the injuries he suffered in violation of his statutory and constitutional rights, so the court awarded only nominal (symbolic) damages of $1.00, but it directed that the School Board issue a new, corrected transcript in ten days, and the parties will now haggle about the size of the award of attorney’s fees and costs, which should be substantial.

Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen, nominated to the court by President Barack Obama, was the first female African-American judge to serve in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia after she was unanimously confirmed by the Senate (96-0) in May 2011.  She had previously been the top Federal Public Defender in the Eastern District of Virginia, and was a former Assistant U.S. Attorney and a military judge.  Prior to this ruling, her most noteworthy decision, issued in February 2014, declared Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

 

Unanimous Utah Supreme Court Holds Exclusion of Same-Sex Couples Under Gestational Surrogacy Law is Unconstitutional

Posted on: August 7th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

The Utah Supreme Court ruled on August 1 that a state law authorizing judicial approval of gestational surrogacy contracts was unconstitutional to the extent that it excluded married same-sex couples from being able to enter into an enforceable gestational surrogacy contract.  Finding that the offending provision is “severable” from the rest of the statute, the court sent the case back to a trial court for approval of the surrogacy agreement.  The case is In re Gestational Agreement, 2019 Westlaw 3521540, 2019 UT 40.

The opinion by Chief Justice Matthew B. Durrant refers to the parties by their initials.  N.T.B. and J.G.M., a gay male married couple, wanted to make an enforceable gestational surrogacy contract with D.B. and G.M., a different-sex married couple.  They had the appropriate papers drawn up and submitted them for approval to District Judge Jeffrey C. Wilcox in St. George.

Under Utah’s law governing gestational surrogacy, only married couples can make an enforceable gestational surrogacy contract, and for the contract to be legally valid, a judge must find that it meets a multi-part statutory test.  The intended parents must be a married couple, and the proposed gestational surrogate must be a married woman who has already borne at least one child and whose husband consents to the arrangement.  The statute does not specify that the intended parents must be a different-sex couple, but when this state was enacted in 2005, Utah had a constitutional provision banning same-sex marriages, so clearly the legislature was thinking of different-sex couples when it approved the statute.

In order for the judge to validate the agreement, he or she must find that “medical evidence shows that the intended mother is unable to bear a child or is unable to do so without unreasonable risk to her physical or mental health or to the unborn child.”  That is, Utah legislators did not want to validate surrogacy agreements where the intended parents wanted to pay somebody to bear their child for reasons of convenience, but only for reasons of medical necessity.

Taking this provision literally, Judge Wilcox reasoned that the statute’s use of the words “mother and her plainly refer to a woman,” so because “neither of the legally married intended parents are women the court must deny their petition.”  The judge rejected the petitioners’ argument that he should apply a gender-neutral interpretation to the statute, or that denying the married gay couple the right to make a valid gestational surrogacy contract was a violation of their constitutional rights.

They appealed the ruling, and the state’s Court of Appeals certified the case to go directly to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court faced several issues.  First, since the state was not a party and filed an amicus brief urging the court to interpret the statute to allow this contract to be validated, there was no traditional “case or controversy.”  Thus, the court had to confront the question whether it had jurisdiction over this case.  Chief Justice Durrant devoted a considerable portion of the opinion to that question, finding that in the field of family law there were various circumstances in which courts decide essentially uncontested cases because of statutory requirements for the exercise of judicial judgment, and this case fit easily into that exception to the general requirement that courts confine themselves to resolving disputes between contesting parties.  His opinion resulted in two members of the court writing concurring opinions focused solely on the jurisdiction issue, but the outcome had unanimous support of all the judges.

The second issue for the court was whether it could use a gender-neutral interpretation of the statute to get around the literal requirement found by Judge Wilcox that one of the intended parents must be a woman who is unable to bear a child for medical reasons.

The petitioners relied on a general “rule of construction” in the Utah code that “a word used in one gender includes the other gender.”  Judge Wilcox had acknowledged this, but noted that the same statute provides that the general rules of construction “shall be observed, unless the construction would be: (i) inconsistent with the manifest intent of the Legislature; or (ii) repugnant to the context of the statute.”  Wilcox found this proviso applicable, and so did Chief Justice Durrant.

Certainly, the intent of the legislature when the statute was enacted was to override the general common law rule against enforcement of surrogacy agreements, but only for a narrow range of cases in which traditionally-married couples who were unable for medical reasons to have a child without the assistance of a surrogate could make an enforceable surrogacy agreement subject to judicial oversight to protect the interests of all parties.  A judge had to approve the agreement to ensure that all interests, including those of the surrogate and the resulting child, were protected.

“Because the plain and ordinary meaning of the word ‘mother’ is ‘female parent,’” wrote Durrant, “we are bound, as the district court concluded it was, to read the statute as requiring that one of the intended parents be a female parent.”  He noted that following the state’s and the petitioners’ argument that the gender neutral construction rule should be followed, but this would come within both terms of the proviso: inconsistent with legislative intent and “repugnant” to the context of the statute.  He pointed out that a gender neutral reading could provide results clearly outside of the bounds that the legislature wanted to place on the use of gestational surrogacy.  If the words “intended mother” are read to mean “intended parent” without regard to gender, then a different sex couple could enter into a gestational surrogacy contract by showing that the husband is unable to bear a child.  “Because every opposite-sex couple could make this showing automatically,” wrote Dunnant, observing parenthetically that “every opposite-sex couple contains a male member and obviously a male cannot bear a child,” then this gender-neutral interpretation “would write the intended mother requirement out of the statute.”  Clearly, Dunnant has missed the occasional press reports about transgender men bearing children!

In any event, the court was unwilling to adopt a gender-neutral construction of the statute, leading to the next question faced by the court:  Does the requirement that the one of the intended parents be a woman violate the constitutional rights of the same-sex couple?  Here the court easily and unanimously found that it does under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Obergefell v. Hodges and Pavan v. Smith.  In the aftermath of the Obergefell decision, issued on June 26, 2015, lower courts had to decide whether Obergefell was a narrow decision, merely requiring that states allow same-sex couples to marry, or a broad decision under which the marriages of same-sex couples must be treated the same as other marriages under state law.

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s explanation in Obergefell of why the right to marry is a “fundamental right” did more than just imply that same-sex marriages had to enjoy equal rights, but some lower courts did not get that message.  The Arkansas Supreme Court, for example, ruled in Pavan v. Smith that the state could refuse to put the names of both women in a married couple on the birth certificate of their child because only one of the women was “biologically related” to the child.  The U.S. Supreme Court reversed.  Since the husband of a woman who gives birth is automatically listed on the birth certificate as a parent of the child, so must be a same-sex spouse, because the 14th Amendment requires that all marriages have equal rights.

Durrant found this clearly applicable to the present case.  The court found that the Utah statutory requirement that validation of a gestational agreement requires that at least one of the intended parents be female “squarely violates Obergefell in that it deprives married same-sex male couples of the ability to obtain a valid gestational agreement – a marital benefit freely provided to opposite-sex couples.  Under the statute, married same-sex male couples are treated differently than married opposite-sex couples.  Because under Obergefell same-sex married couples are constitutionally entitled to the ‘constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage,’ we hold the intended mother requirement . . . unconstitutional.”

This brought the court to the last question.  Was the entire surrogacy statute thus rendered unconstitutional, or could the statute be saved be severing the provision concerning the intended mother’s reproductive capacity and enforcing the statute without that provision for applications by same-sex couples?

The court noted that the legislature did not include an express severability provision in the statute, so the court was left to apply the general rule that a statute should be saved from being struck down on constitutional grounds if it was feasible to do so, and the court found it was feasible to do so in this case.  Durrant pointed out that the statute required the district court to make findings on eleven different issues. Subtracting this one left ten other issues, such as whether the consideration paid to a surrogate is “reasonable,” whether the surrogate has had a successful pregnancy in the past, whether a home study shows the intended parents meet the “standard of fitness applicable to adoptive parents” and so forth.  “Striking the intended mother requirement from this list does not reduce the significance of these other required findings,” he wrote.  “The district court should still be required to make findings on each of the additional ten conditions.  Severing the intended mother requirement from the statute does nothing to affect the operability of the remaining portions of the statute.”  Indeed, the court found that severing the intended mother requirement does nothing to “undermine” the purpose of the other provisions intended to protect the surrogate, the intended parents, and the child.

The parties are represented by Edwin S. Wall and Damian E. Davenport of Salt Lake City.  Utah Attorney General Sean D. Reyes, Solicitor General Tyler R. Green, and Assistant Solicitor General Brent A. Burnett submitted an amicus brief encouraging the court to adopt a gender-neutral interpretation of the statute, so as not to require a constitutional ruling.

This opinion is an important contribution to the growing body of cases adopting a broad construction of the precedential power of Obergefell v. Hodges and the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision of Pavan v. Smith.