Federal Court Agrees to Let VAWA Funding in North Carolina to Continue During Pendency of H.B. 2 Lawsuit

When the Justice Department filed suit against North Carolina for a declaration that H.B.2’s bathroom provision violates the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), it put into play a provision of that statute, 42 U.S.C. sec. 13925(b)(13)(c), which provides that upon the filing of a civil action “alleging a pattern or practice of discriminatory conduct on the basis of sex in any program or activity of a State government or unit of local government which receives funds made available under [VAWA], and the conduct allegedly violates the provisions of [VAWA] and neither party within forty-five days after such filing has been granted such preliminary relief with regard to the suspension or payment of funds as may be otherwise available by law, the Office of Justice Programs shall cause to have suspended further payment of any funds under this chapter to that specific program or activity alleged by the Attorney General to be in violation of the provisions of [VAWA] until such time as the court orders resumption of payment.” In other words, federal funding for a variety of rape prevention and domestic violence programs in North Carolina that depend on federal funds under VAWA would have to be suspended 45 days after May 10.

For a while nobody was really paying attention to this, but suddenly somebody woke up to the reality that before the end of June the federal money would stop flowing to these programs unless the court issued a preliminary injunction to keep the money flowing. United States v. State of North Carolina, 2016 WL 3561726 (M.D.N.C., June 23, 2016).  The State and the Justice Department quickly reached an agreement to ask the federal court to issue such a preliminary injunction, which District Judge Thomas Schroeder did on June 23.

However, Judge Schroeder agonized through a rather lengthy opinion trying to explain how such an injunction could be issued when the state failed to show that it was likely to prevail on the merits of the underlying issue: whether the bathroom provisions of H.B. 2 violate the VAWA, as alleged by the Justice Department. Alone among the statutes cited by DOJ in its complaint, VAWA actually explicitly defines its ban on discrimination “because of sex” to include discrimination because of gender identity; on top of that, of course, the 4th Circuit has already ruled in G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, 2016 WL 1567467 (April 19, 2016), rehearing en banc denied (June 1), that the ban on sex discrimination in Title IX (and by analogy Title VII), also cited in the complaint, includes a ban on gender identity discrimination.

The state is arguing, without much credibility, that the bathroom provision does not discriminate against transgender people, “merely” requiring them to use single-gender facilities or facilities consistent with their biological sex as specified on their birth certificate when they need a bathroom. In a summary judgment motion subsequently filed on July 5, DOJ blasted that contention out of the water, but, of course, that motion hadn’t been filed yet when Judge Schroeder had to decide before a statutory deadline for suspending funding that would hit on June 23.

Ultimately, he concluded that even though preliminary injunctive relief normally depends on a strong showing that the defendant is likely to prevail on the merits, there is no controlling 4th Circuit precedent that would prevent him from issuing the jointly-requested injunction in light of the practical consequences of cutting off federal funding for these important programs for the duration of the litigation. While pointing out that lack of a showing of likelihood of success “is normally fatal to any request for a preliminary injunction,” this was not the usual case.  “With the consent of all parties, however,” he wrote, “courts sometimes enter preliminary injunctions without any findings regarding the likelihood of success on the merits. . .  The Fourth Circuit has acknowledged this practice without comment.”

In stating his decision to grant the injunction, he wrote: “The court does so particularly mindful of how the entrenched positions of the parties would otherwise likely inflict substantial harm on innocent third parties if VAWA funding were to be suspended. As the parties acknowledge, the continued operation of rape crisis centers and the other VAWA-funded programs unquestionably serves the public interest.  The court is also cognizant, however, that if the allegations of the complaint are correct, maintenance of the status quo will continue to inflict harm on transgender individuals under enforcement of the law.”  He cautioned that by agreeing to allow funding for these programs to continue, neither party was making any representation “as to any other party’s likelihood of success on the merits.  As a result, the entry of this preliminary injunction shall not prejudice the parties’ positions in this case or further findings by the court.”

Presumably, if Judge Schroeder were to grant the DOJ’s motion for preliminary injunction that was filed on July 5, the State would have to cease enforcing H.B.2’s bathroom provision while the litigation continued, and thus the flow of federal money would no longer be endangered. Since the %G.G.% ruling by the 4th Circuit intimated, if not actually holding, that schools receiving federal funds from the Education Department might have to let transgender students access bathrooms consistent with their gender identity, chances do not look good for the State to succeed in defeating DOJ’s motion for preliminary injunction.

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