New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Florida Federal Judge Refuses to Enjoin Anti-Conversion Therapy Ordinances

On February 13, U.S. District Judge Robin L. Rosenberg denied a motion by two Palm Beach County psychologists to block enforcement of the county’s ordinance forbidding licensed health care practitioners from providing “sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE, alsocommonly referred to as “conversion therapy”) to minors.  The refusal of a preliminary injunction extends as well to a similar ordinance enacted by the city of Boca Raton, which is in Palm Beach County.  Judge Rosenberg concluded that the plaintiffs failed to show that they were likely to prevail on their argument that the measures violate their First Amendment free speech rights.  Otto v. City of Boca Raton, 2019 WL 588645, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23363 (S.D. Fla.).

Judge Rosenberg appears to be the first district judge to take on recent Supreme Court rulings that might make it more difficult for governments to defend these laws against constitutional attacks.  Just weeks ago, a federal magistrate judge in Tampa recommended to the district court there to grant a preliminary injunction against enforcement of Tampa’s ordinance against conversion therapy practitioners in that city while the litigation proceeds. The district court has not yet ruled on that recommendation, and Judge Rosenberg’s extensive and detailed opinion may influence the other district judge to reject the magistrate’s recommendation.

Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone’s recommendation in the Tampa case was based heavily on the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 ruling, in National Instituyte of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, 138 S.Ct. 2361 (2018), that a California statute requiring clinics in that state to advise clients about the availability of state-financed abortion services violated the clinics’ First Amendment rights.  In the course of that opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the Court, specifically rejected assertions by two federal appeals courts that “professional speech” is entitled to less constitutional protection than other speech, in cases involving challenges to laws against conversion therapy.

Judge Sansone construed the Supreme Court’s ruling to require using the “strict scrutiny” test to evaluate the Tampa ordinance, and concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that the ordinance would not survive strict scrutiny, at least regarding the consensual “talk therapy” that the plaintiffs claimed to be providing to their patients.

Without explicitly mentioning Magistrate Sansone’s analysis, Judge Rosenberg rejected it, concluding that the question of the level of judicial review to be provided to these ordinances is “unsettled” at best, and that the cases that Sansone cited and relied upon do not necessarily lead to the conclusion she reached.

Instead, finding that the appropriate level of review of a ban on talk therapy to attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation (or gender identity, for that matter) is “unsettled,” Judge Rosenberg decided to analyze the issue using the three different levels of judicial review of a statute, always keeping in mind that in requesting a preliminary injunction to block a duly-enacted statute while its constitutionality is being litigated, the plaintiffs have a heavy burden to show a substantial likelihood of prevailing on the merits of their claim.

Using the least demanding level of review, “rational basis,” Judge Rosenberg easily rejected the contention that the city or county were acting irrationally or without any justification in passing the ordinances.  She devoted a substantial part of her opinion to summarizing the evidence that was presented to persuade the county and city legislators that they should pass these laws, concluding that a substantial body of professional opinion unanimously rejects the use of conversion therapy, especially on minors, both because of the lack of evidence that talk therapy can change a person’s sexual orientation, and the mounting evidence of its harmful effects.  Furthermore, she noted, minors are not really capable of giving informed consent and are particularly vulnerable to the psychological harm associated with conversion therapy.

Turning to the next level of scrutiny, which has been applied by other courts in evaluating free speech claims against such laws, “heightened scrutiny,” she found that the legislative record here would back up the defendant’s claims of important governmental interests in protecting minors that are advanced by passing these laws.

Turning to the most demanding level of review, “strict scrutiny,” Judge Rosenberg noted that generally content-based governmental actions to restrict speech are subject to this standard, putting the burden on the government to show that it has a compelling interest at stake and that the measure is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest without unnecessarily abridging free speech.  Narrow tailoring means that the governmental body has to have considered whether a narrower prohibition (the “least restrictive alternative”) would suffice to achieve its compelling goal.

Key to her analysis here is that the defendants met the compelling interest test, because protecting minors is an important role for government, especially when it is necessary to protect them from what may be well-meaning but ultimately harmful decisions by their parents.  The issue which she deemed less conclusive was the narrow tailoring part.  The plaintiffs suggested, as plaintiffs had successfully argued to the Tampa magistrate judge, that a ban on aversion therapy or non-consensual therapy would suffice.  Rosenberg cited reasons for doubting this, including the evidence that talk therapy itself may have harmful effects, as well as her reservations, noted above, about whether such therapy practiced on minors is really consensual.

The bottom line for Rosenberg, however, was that the plaintiffs did not meet the bar of showing that strict scrutiny was definitely the appropriate test to apply, or that they had a substantial likelihood of proving at trial that the measures were insufficiently narrowly-tailored.  As a result, they were not entitled to the preliminary injunction.  She reached a similar conclusion analyzing plaintiffs’ claim that the ordinances are an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech or unduly vague.

Most importantly, she took great pains to explain why the Supreme Court’s ruling in the California clinics case does not necessarily mandate that strict scrutiny should be the standard in this case.  For one thing, she pointed out, that case did not involve regulating speech that was part of treatment, while in this case, the speech is a tool in the process of providing treatment, and state and local governments have traditionally regulated treatments offered by licensed professionals.  The California case involved requiring clinics to provide information that they did not want to be compelled to provide, which is a different story entirely.  “There,” she wrote, “the doctors were compelled to speak, despite the fact that the required notice ‘is not an informed-consent requirement or tied to a procedure at all.’”

She also noted that Justice Thomas’s opinion did not even specify what the level of judicial review should be in that case.  She pointed to the Supreme Court’s earlier case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992), in which the Court considered a state law requiring that doctors make certain “factual disclosures” to patients seeking abortions in an attempt to dissuade them.  In that case, the Court’s opinion said that “the physician’s First Amendment rights” were only “implicated as part of the practice of medicine, subject to reasonable licensing and regulation by the state.”  This suggests that the rational basis test might apply, or at most heightened scrutiny.

Because she concluded that at this preliminary stage it was possible to conclude that plaintiffs had not shown a substantial likelihood of winning under any of the potentially applicable standards of review, Judge Rosenberg denied the preliminary injunction, leaving to a later stage in the litigation a more definite ruling on the appropriate level of review and the ultimate merits of the case.  This means that the performance of conversion therapy on minors in Palm Beach County and the city of Boca Raton will continue to be illegal for licensed health care practitioners while the litigation proceeds.

Plaintiffs are represented by Liberty Counsel, the anti-LGBT legal organization that also represents the psychologists attacking the Tampa ordinance, as well as psychologists in New Jersey who have petitioned the Supreme Court to revive their 1st Amendment challenge to that state’s ban on conversion therapy for minors.

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Liberty Counsel Revives Assault on New Jersey Conversion Therapy Ban

Usually the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to review a lower court decision puts an end to the case, but Liberty Counsel, a right-wing religious group that represents psychologists in New Jersey who want to provide conversion therapy to “change” people from gay to straight, has seized upon an opening created by a U.S. Supreme Court decision from last June to revive their constitutional attack on New Jersey’s law prohibiting licensed professional counselors from providing such therapy to minors.  On February 11, the organization petitioned the Supreme Court to effectively reopen the case.  King v. Governor of New Jersey & Garden State Equality.

Governor Chris Christie signed the measure into law on August 19, 2013.  Liberty Counsel promptly filed suit on behalf of two psychologists and their patients, as well as the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), and the American Association of Christian Counselors, claiming that the measure violated the constitutional rights of plaintiffs.

U.S. District Judge Freda L. Wolfson granted the state’s motion for summary judgment, finding no constitutional violation (see 981 F. Supp. 2d 296), and the plaintiffs fared no better before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, based in Newark, which upheld Judge Wolfson’s ruling on September 11, 2014 (see 767 F. 3d 216).

Wolfson found the measure to be a regulation of professional conduct, only incidentally affecting speech.  As such, she held that the challenge should be rejected as long as the legislature had a rational basis for enacting the law.  She found that the legislative record about the inefficacy and harm of such therapy was sufficient to meet the test.

On appeal, the three-judge panel disagreed with Judge Wolfson to the extent of finding that the ban as applied to “talk therapy” is a content-based regulation of speech, not just a regulation of conduct with an incidental effect on speech.  But the appeals court unanimously rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the statute was consequently subject to the strict scrutiny test, under which it would be presumed to be unconstitutional unless New Jersey could prove that it was narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest.

Instead, wrote Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith for the panel, the speech involved in providing conversion therapy is “professional speech,” subject to state regulation.  As such, the court ruled, the state could prevail under the less demanding “heightened scrutiny” test by showing that the ban substantially advanced an important state interest, and that the legislative record was sufficient to uphold the law.

Liberty Counsel petitioned the Supreme Court for review.  That petition was denied on May 4, 2015 (see 135 S. Ct. 2048).  The Supreme Court also denied a petition to review a similar decision by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in a case brought by, among others, Dr. David Pickup, in which that court rejected a similar challenge to California’s ban on conversion therapy.  (Dr. Pickup is also a plaintiff in the case challenging a conversion therapy ban in Tampa, Florida, about which we blogged earlier.)  Judge Wolfson relied on the 9th Circuit’s ruling in finding that conversion therapy statutes can be upheld as within the traditional state power to regulate the conduct of licensed professionals.

More than a dozen jurisdictions have since passed such bans, and attempts to challenge them in the courts have similarly been unsuccessful.  But the Supreme Court may have upset this trend by its ruling on June 26, 2018, in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361.  NIFLA challenged a California law that required licensed pregnancy-related clinics to inform their clients about the availability of publicly-funded family-planning services, including contraception and abortions, and non-licensed facilities to provide notices stating that they were not licensed by the state.  The Supreme Court agreed with NIFLA that the statute violated the 1st Amendment protection for freedom of speech by compelling the plaintiffs to speak the government’s message.

In defending the statute, California relied on the conversion therapy decisions from the 3rd and 9th Circuits.  This provoked Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the 5-4 majority, to reject the idea that “professional speech” in the context of regulated, licensed professions was entitled to any lesser constitutional protection than other speech.  After summarizing these and other cases, Thomas wrote: “But this Court has not recognized ‘professional speech’ as a separate category of speech.  Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by ‘professionals.’  This court has ‘been reluctant to mark of new categories of speech for diminished constitutional protection.’”

Thomas went on to write that there were only two circumstances in which the Supreme Court had provided lesser protection to “professional speech”: “First, our precedents have applied more deferential review to some laws that require professionals to disclose factual, noncontroversial information in their ‘commercial speech.’  Second, under our precedents, States may regulate professional conduct, even though that conduct incidentally involves speech.”

Thus, at least by implication, a majority of the Supreme Court ruled last June that states passing conversion therapy bans will have to meet the demanding strict scrutiny test when they are challenged under the 1st Amendment.  Unless, of course, they can show that this is really a regulation of professional conduct with incidental effect on speech, an approach that worked in the 9th Circuit.  Although Thomas’s comments in NIFLA suggest this may be a difficult task, it is not necessarily impossible.

Reacting to the Supreme Court’s NIFLA ruling, Liberty Counsel jumped into action to try to revive its challenge to the New Jersey law.  First, it filed a Motion with the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, demanding that it recall the Mandate it had issued to the District Court in 2014 to dismiss the challenge to the statute.  Liberty Counsel argued that the Supreme Court’s ruling had “abrogated” the 3rd Circuit’s decision, thus the 3rd Circuit should acknowledge that its 2014 ruling was erroneous and correct the situation by “recalling” its Mandate.  Although Liberty Counsel does not explicitly state what would come next, presumably this would mean reversing the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to the state and resetting the case for argument under the strict scrutiny test.  The 3rd Circuit denied this Motion without a hearing or a written opinion.

Undaunted, Liberty Counsel then sought rehearing en banc (by the full 3rd Circuit bench), which was also denied, on November 13, 2018.

Liberty Counsel petitioned the Supreme Court on February 11, arguing that the 3rd Circuit “abused its discretion” by refusing to take action based on the Supreme Court’s “abrogation” of the 3rd Circuit’s prior opinion.  Liberty Counsel cites numerous cases in which it claims federal courts of appeals have “recalled” their mandates from lower courts after a Supreme Court decision in a similar case has rejected the reasoning underlying their earlier decision.  Liberty Counsel argues that the current situation is particularly stark because the Supreme Court has not only rejected the reasoning of the earlier case, but has cited and quoted from the earlier decision while doing so.

On the other hand, Justice Thomas did not use the term “abrogate” and his opinion in NIFLA recognizes that there may be circumstances in which state regulation of professional speech may be constitutional.  The 9th Circuit’s reasoning in the Pickup case, focused on the regulation of professional conduct rather than speech, may be such an instance, and the 3rd Circuit’s case could be reconsidered under such a standard.  In this case, Liberty Counsel may be following the lead of West Publishing Company, which operates the Westlaw legal research system.  If one finds the 3rd Circuit’s decision in Westlaw, one sees, in bold red above the citation of the case, the phrase “Abrogated by National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, U.S., June 26, 2018” and the characterization “Severe Negative Treatment.”

Liberty Counsel’s petition, a bit disingenuously, assumes this means that the New Jersey law is unconstitutional, but all it really means is that the 3rd Circuit applied too lenient a standard in ruling on the case and should have applied the strict scrutiny test to be in line with the Supreme Court ruling in NIFLA.

In its argument to the Supreme Court, Liberty Counsel contends that failing to grant the petition and to require the 3rd Circuit to “recall” its mandate will have harmful rippling effects throughout the nation.  It points to the steady progression of new state and local laws that have been enacted in reliance on the “incorrect” decisions by the 3rd and 9th Circuits, which it asserts will “chill” the ability of conversion therapy practitioners to “offer” this “cure” to their patients.

In January, U.S. Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone relied on the Supreme Court’s NIFLA decision in her report recommending that the U.S. District Court issue a preliminary injunction against the application of the Tampa, Florida, conversion therapy ban to practitioners who provide “talk therapy.”  The complaint filed in federal court in Brooklyn last month by Alliance Defending Freedom, challenging New York City’s ordinance, is devised to raise the same arguments.  And it is predictable that either ADF or Liberty Counsel will file suit in an attempt to block the new state law enacted last month in New York raising similar arguments.

Although Liberty Counsel couches its petition as an attempt to have the court settle a dispute among lower courts about the proper way to respond when one of their decisions is substantially undermined in its reasoning by a subsequent Supreme Court ruling in a similar case, it is at heart an attempt to relitigate the question whether conversion therapy practitioners have a 1st Amendment right to ply their trade free of government restrictions.  It is a blatant attempt to get the issue of conversion therapy back before the Supreme Court now that Trump’s appointments have solidified the conservative majority.  And, at that, it is a test of science against homophobia and transphobia.

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Federal Magistrate Recommends Limited Preliminary Injunction Against Enforcement of Tampa Conversion Therapy Ban

On January 30, U.S. Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone (M.D. Fla., Tampa Div.), issued a Report and Recommendation to the U.S. District Court, recommending that the court issue a limited preliminary injunction barring the City of Tampa, Florida, from enforcing its Ordinance banning licensed health care professionals from performing conversion therapy on minors. The Ordinance forbids all kinds of therapy for the purpose of attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation or to reduce or eliminate same-sex attraction. Judge Sansone concluded, relying on the 1st Amendment’s free speech provision, that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail regarding the type of therapy they claim to provide: non-coercive, consensual “talk therapy,” eschewing electro-shock or other aversion therapy methods, and that failure to enjoin the Ordinance would cause irreparable injury to the plaintiffs by restraining their freedom of speech. Vazzo v. City of Tampa, Case No. 8:17-cv-2896-T-02AAS. Plaintiffs are represented by Liberty Counsel, a right-wing Christian advocacy law firm.

In addition to Robert L. Vazzo, a Florida-licensed marriage and family therapist, plaintiffs include David Pickup, who holds a similar license from California, where his practice of conversion therapy has been prohibited by state law. Pickup alleges that he is seeking Florida licensure. Also suing is New Hearts Outreach Tampa Bay, a Christian organization that refers people to licensed therapists for conversion therapy. Equality Florida, a state-wide LGBT rights advocacy group, sought to intervene in defense of the Ordinance, but its attempt was rejected by Judge Sanson and District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell, so it is participating only in an amicus capacity. Of course, the City of Tampa’s legal representative is defending the Ordinance. As a preliminary matter, Judge Sansone concluded that plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on their claim that the Tampa City Council lacked subject matter jurisdiction to pass the law. She found that the legislature’s regulation of mental health services does not expressly preempt the field, and that implied preemption is disfavored.

Judge Sansone’s recommendation for injunctive relief flies in the face of rulings by the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit and the 9th Circuit, which rejected 1st Amendment challenges to similar state laws. In Pickup v. Brown, 740 F.3d 1208 (2014), the 9th Circuit rejected Dr. Pickup’s 1st Amendment attack on California’s conversion therapy ban, finding that the statute was primarily a regulation of conduct by health care providers, which only incidentally affected professional speech. Subjecting the statute to rational basis review, the court found the state’s interest in protecting minors from harmful effects of conversion therapy that were documented in the legislative process by studies and reports and professional opinions were sufficient to meet the rational basis test. In King v. Governor of New Jersey, 767 F.3d 216 (2014), the 3rd Circuit differed from the 9th Circuit and decided the state was a content-based regulation of speech, but that it was “professional speech” in the context of a pervasively regulated profession – health care –and was thus subject only to heightened scrutiny, not strict scrutiny. The 3rd Circuit found that New Jersey had a substantial interest in protecting its citizens from harmful professional practices, relying on the same kind of evidence that was considered in the California case. Thus, in both cases, the 1st Amendment challenges were unsuccessful because the courts found sufficient justification for the legislature’s action. Both cases were denied review by the U.S. Supreme Court.

While acknowledging these2014 rulings in other circuits, Judge Sansone put greater weight on two more recent cases. In Wollschlaeger v. Governor of Florida, 848 F.3d 1293 (2017), the 11th Circuit, with binding appellate authority on a Florida District Court, found that Florida’s law prohibiting doctors from asking their patients whether they had firearms in their homes was a content-based regulation of speech that failed heightened scrutiny. As described by Judge Sansone, “the challenged provision failed to address concerns identified by the six anecdotes the legislature relied on when passing the law.” However, the more weighty recent precedent is National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361 (2018), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California law that requires “pregnancy centers” to inform their patients that free or low-cost abortions are available from the state government was unconstitutional as a form of compelled speech. California sought to defend its law using the same sort argument thatt prevailed in the Pickup case: that the statute was a regulation of health care practice, only incidentally affecting professional speech, but this argument did not save the statute.

Wrote Judge Sansone: “NIFLA expressly rejected the analyses in Pickup and King recognizing “professional speech” as a separate category of speech subject to differing constitutional analysis. Instead, professional speech is usually given less protection if it is commercial speech or if a law regulates professional conduct that incidentally involves speech. Although stating traditional strict scrutiny analysis applies to a content-based law that regulates neither commercial speech nor conduct that incidentally involves speech, NIFLA applied intermediate scrutiny to the California law requiring pregnancy centers to post notices.” The Supreme Court had stated that it was not necessary to determine whether strict scrutiny should be applied because, in its view, the law did not even survive intermediate scrutiny.

Taking these cases together, Judge Sansone concluded that the Tampa Ordinance is, at least as applied to “talk therapy” as described by the plaintiffs, a content-based regulation of speech that should be subject to strict scrutiny. She noted in support of this conclusion that the Tampa Ordinance itself refers to the counseling at which it is aimed as “professional speech” in a findings provision explaining that it would be “subject to a lower level of judicial scrutiny.” Judge Sansone’s assertion that this is thus a strict scrutiny case appears to go beyond the authorities upon which she claims to rely, since neither of them applied strict scrutiny or held it was appropriate in a comparable context.

However, proceeding to apply strict scrutiny, she found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits, at least as to talk therapy that is non-coercive and consensual, even though she found that the Ordinance serves a compelling governmental interesting in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors. This is because in a strict scrutiny case, the content-based law has to be “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.” She continued, “The court will not assume plausible alternatives will fail to protect a compelling interest,” and found nothing in the legislative record to suggest that this law was enacted as “the least restrictive means” to achieve the government’s purpose. “If a less restrictive means would serve the compelling governmental interest,” she wrote, “the government must use that alternative.” She found plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their argument that an across-the-board ban of all kinds of SOCE techniques was unduly broad, giving credence to their suggestion that the City could accomplish its goal by banning aversion therapy techniques while allowing talk therapy, and by requiring informed consent from minors and their parents. Without explaining why, Judge Sansone appeared to accept the plaintiffs’ argument that “talk therapy” seeking to change sexual orientation is not harmful to minors, a point that the defendant and amici will sharply contest in a trial of the merits of this case. Also contestable is the contention that there is meaningful consent by minors whose perhaps parents persuade or compel them to submit to conversion therapy.

She also found that plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that the ordinance is a form of viewpoint discrimination and is overbroad. Once again, she appears to buy into the plaintiffs’ contentions that “talk therapy” is not a waste of the patient’s time or potentially harmful. (This despite a ruling she does not discuss, the JONAH case, in which a New Jersey trial court found that SOCE practitioners’ representations of being able to change people’s sexual orientation is a form of fraud in violation of the state’s consumer protection law.) She also considered the ordinance to be potentially a prior restraint of protected speech and unconstitutionally vague.

As to the other grounds for preliminary injunctive relief, she found that any restraint on protected speech causes irreparable harm to the persons whose speech is suppressed, and that the equities in this case tipped in favor of the plaintiffs because the harm to them outweighs any harm to the City. “The City, however, failed to show any harm it may suffer if enforcement of Ordinance 2017-47 is enjoined,” she wrote. “The City and Equality Florida instead focus on potential harm to non-defendants, especially minors, if the Ordinance is enjoined.” But this overlooks the traditional role of government as a protector of the health and welfare of minors under the parens patriae doctrine; the Ordinance was adopted in pursuit of that function, based on evidence offered in the legislative process that conversion therapy is not merely fraudulent but also harmful to minors. The court exclaimed that it is not in the public interest to enforce an unconstitutional statute, but there has been on finding on the merits after trial that this statute is unconstitutional, and there surely is a public interest in protecting minors from harm.

Reciting the doctrine that injunctions should be “no broader than necessary to avoid the harm on which the injunction is based,” Judge Sansone recommended that the injunction be narrowly focused on protecting the practice of “non-coercive talk therapy,” and allow to be enforced against therapy that is coercive or goes beyond talk. As she phrased it, “The plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction should be granted to the extent that the City should be enjoined from enforcing Ordinance 2017-47 against mental health professionals who provide non-coercive, non-aversive SOCE counseling – which consists entirely of speech, or ‘talk therapy’ – to minors within city limits.” The City will have an opportunity to contest this recommendation when it is presented to the district judge.

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Alliance Defending Freedom Files Constitution Challenge to NYC Law Banning Conversion Therapy

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the anti-gay Christian legal organization based in Scottsdale, Arizona, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn on January 23, challenging the constitutionality of New York City’s Local Law 22 of 2018, which prohibits the practice of conversion therapy in the City. The law was a project of the City Council, which enacted it on November 30, 2017. It was returned to the Council unsigned by Mayor Bill De Blasio within thirty days, and became law without his approval on January 5, 2018.  The case is Schwartz v. The City of New York, Case 1:19-cv-00463 (N.Y. Dist. Ct., E.D. N.Y., filed Jan. 23, 2019).

The measure is probably the most broadly-sweeping legislative measure against conversion therapy to be enacted in the United States. State laws on the subject, including the one enacted in January in New York State, limit their bans to provision of such therapy to minors by licensed health care professionals, and designate the offense as professional misconduct that can subject the practitioner to discipline for unprofessional conduct. The City law, by contrast, applies to “any person” who provides such therapy for a fee to any individual, not just minors. The City law imposes civil penalties beginning with $1,000 for a first violation, $5,000 for a second violation, and $10,000 for each subsequent violation, which can be imposed by the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings. Its enforcement has been assigned to the Department of Consumer Affairs.

For purposes of this law, “conversion therapy” is defined as “any services, offered or provided to consumers for a fee, that seek to change a person’s sexual orientation or seek to change a person’s gender identity to conform to the sex of such individual that was recorded at birth.” The measure does not contain any express exemption for religious counselors or clergy, but presumably if they do not charge a fee for their services they are not subject to this law.

Legal challenges to the various state laws, of which there are now more than a dozen, have so far been unsuccessful, but it is not clear that the sweeping New York City law will benefit from some of the legal doctrines that states have successfully marshalled to defend their laws. Most importantly, the state laws fall comfortably within the traditional state role of regulating the provision of health care by licensed practitioners, and by being restricted to minors, they rest within the state’s traditional function of parens patriae, caring for the welfare of minors, which can mean at times defending minors from the well-meaning but harmful actions of their parents, such as refusing blood transfusions or medication for serious illnesses.

ADF is asking the court to issue a declaration that the law is unconstitutional and to issue an injunction against its enforcement by the City. The law does not authorize individuals to file suit against conversion therapy practitioners, but instead leaves enforcement to an administrative process, triggered by complaints to the Consumer Affairs Department.

ADF has found a seemingly sympathetic plaintiff, Dr. David Schwartz, a “counselor and psychotherapist practicing in New York City who has a general practice but who has regularly had, and currently has, patients who desire counseling that the Counseling Censorship Law prohibits.” The Complaint also describes him as a “licensed clinical social worker” who “resides and practices in Brooklyn.” When this writer first read the Complaint, he was alarmed to think that the New York City Council would title a measure “Counseling Censorship Law,” but upon retrieving a copy of the Local Law 22, saw that the title was an invention of ADF for the purpose of framing its 1st Amendment challenge, as the word “censorship” appears nowhere in the legislation, which does not have an official title.

According to the Complaint, Dr. Schwartz is an Orthodox Jew whose patients come mainly from the Chabad Lubavitch ultra-orthodox community. He avows that he provides counseling and psychotherapy attuned to the needs and desires of that community, and cites the late Lubavitcher Rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, as an authority supporting the practice of conversion therapy. The description of his practice does not mention child patients, stating: “Dr. Schwartz works only with willing patients – patients who voluntarily walk into his office and talk with him because they want and value his counsel. And Dr. Schwartz does nothing to or with his patients other than listen to them and talk with them.”

Schwartz fears that the City law will be used against him, and the Complaint focuses on the $10,000 civil penalty like a sword of Damocles hanging over his head. ADF was smart to avoid mentioning minors, since it filed this lawsuit during the time between the state legislature’s approval of its conversion therapy ban and its signing into law on January 25 by Governor Cuomo. If Schwartz practices on minors as a licensed psychologist, he will be violating the state law, possibly setting up another lawsuit by ADF.

ADF has positioned this case primarily as a challenge to government censorship of free speech and free exercise of religion. The Complaint insists that the only therapy Schwartz provides is “talk therapy,” eschewing the bizarre and cruel practices that were describe in a New Jersey court a few years go in a case brought by emotionally damaged patients of JONAH, a Jewish conversion therapy organization that was found in that case to be in violation of the New Jersey consumer protection law. ADF has crafted the Schwartz Complaint to distinguish this case from the JONAH case, which involved Jewish parents effectively forcing their teenage children to subject themselves to bizarre “therapeutic” procedures to “change” their sexual orientation.

By contrast, without ever indicating the age range of his patients, the Schwartz Complaint says that he “does not view it as the psychotherapist’s role to rebuke patients or to tell them the direction they ‘ought’ to go.” The Complaint describes a practice in which patients come to Schwartz “with a very wide range of issues. However,” it continues, “his practice regularly includes a few individuals who experience undesired same-sex attractions. In some cases, patients come to Dr. Schwartz seeking his assistance in pursuing their personal goal of reducing their same-sex attractions and developing their sense of sexual attraction to the opposite sex.” Schwartz insists that he “does not attempt to increase opposite-sex attraction or change same-sex attraction in patients who do not desire his assistance in that direction. In working with patients who desire to decrease same-sex attraction or increase their attraction to the opposite sex, Dr. Schwartz never promises that these goals will be achieved.”

The Complaint also insists that “Dr. Schwartz engages in no actions other than talking with the patient, and offering ways of thinking about themselves and others that may help them make progress towards the change they desire. Dr. Schwartz does not use electro-shock therapy, he does not recommend that patients view heterosexual pornography or that they subject themselves to painful or other adverse stimulations in response to undesired sexual thoughts. Dr. Schwartz simply listens to what his patients share with him, and talks to them.” The Complaint concedes that some patients do not achieve the goal, and “some have chosen to stop pursuing it,” but claims that Schwartz has had success with an unspecified number of patients who have “over time” experienced “changes” that “have enabled Dr. Schwartz’s patients to enter into heterosexual marriage that they desired.”

The Complaint recites the traditional arguments put forward by conversion therapy proponents, about how patients who are “strongly motivated to change” can achieve their goal. Interestingly, the Complaint refers repeatedly to “reducing” same-sex attraction without ever asserting that Schwartz claims to have “eliminated” such attraction in his patients. And, of course, proponents shy away from any sort of formal documentation, insisting that patient confidentiality precludes providing concrete examples. It also cites no published scientific authorities supporting the efficacy of talk therapy in changing sexual orientation.

Several paragraphs are devoted to statements attributed to Rabbi Schneerson relating to this subject, without any citation of published sources.

ADF’s legal theory here is that the city’s “Counseling Censorship Law” is a content-based regulation of speech that is “aiming to suppress the dissemination of ideas and information about human sexuality and the human capacity for change in this area” and “does not adopt the least restrictive means to pursue a compelling government interest,” arguing that the government “has no cognizable interest at all – let alone a compelling interest – in preventing citizens from hearing ideas that those citizens with to hear in a counseling relationship.” The Complaint argues that the law both prohibits and compels speech, in the sense that it “effectively requires Dr. Schwartz to tell the patient that no change is possible, which Dr. Schwartz does not believe to be true.”

The Complaint also claims that the law is “unduly vague” in violation of the Due Process Clause, picking apart various phrases and terms and suggesting that their ambiguity make it difficult for a practitioner to know what he can or cannot say to a patient. The Complaint also argues that the law violates the 1st Amendment rights of patients who want to receive talk therapy to change their sexual orientation. And, of course, it focuses at the end on the Free Exercise Clause, arguing that Schwartz “has a right to use his professional skills to assist patients to live in accordance with their shared religious faith, including the religious mandates of the Torah and the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and other respected Orthodox Jewish authorities based on the Torah. The Counseling Censorship Law purports to be justified, in its legislative history, by a supposed finding that ‘changing’ sexual orientation is impossible. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, whose teachings inform the core of Dr. Schwartz’s religious convictions, taught exactly the opposite.”

The Complaint argues that because the Council enacted the law knowing that “it was hostile to and targeting practices particularly associated with persons and communities adhering to traditional religious beliefs,” it is “not a neutral law of general applicability,” even though it nowhere mentions religion. This is an attempt to establish that Schwartz’s 1st Amendment claim is not governed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding, in Employment Division v. Smith, that individuals do not have a right based on their religious beliefs to be exempted from “neutral” laws of “general applicability.”

Interestingly, all the attorneys listed on the complaint are staff attorneys of ADF based in Scottsdale, Arizona. No member of the New York bar is listed, although a footnote indicates that one of the attorneys, Jeana J. Hallock, will be applying for pro hac vice admission (admission for purposes of this case only) to the bar in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The lead attorney signing the Complaint is Roger G. Brooks. The defendants are The City of New York and Lorelei Salas, the Commissioner of Consumer Affairs, whose department has issued regulations on enforcement of the law, and who is sued only in her official capacity. The New York City Law Department will defend the City and Commissioner Salas in the case, which is likely to attract amicus briefs on both sides of the case.

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Supreme Court Stays Two Preliminary Injunctions Against Transgender Military Ban, Leaving Only One Injunction in Place

On January 22 the Supreme Court granted applications by Solicitor General Noel Francisco to stay the two nationwide preliminary injunctions that were issued in December 2017 by U.S. District Judges on the West Coast to stop President Donald Trump’s ban on military service by transgender individuals from going into effect. The vote was 5-4, with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan indicating that they would have denied the applications for stays. Although the stays mean that the Trump Administration’s transgender military ban is no longer blocked by those two injunctions, it is still blocked by an injunction issued by a federal judge in Baltimore.

The Supreme Court issued these two stays “pending disposition of the Government’s appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and disposition of the Government’s petition for a writ of certiorari, if such writ is sought.” At the same time, the Supreme Court denied the Solicitor General’s petitions to leapfrog the 9th Circuit and take its appeal of the district court actions for direct review. These petitions were practically rendered moot, at least for now, by the Supreme Court’s granting of the stays. When the Court made its announcement at 9:30 am on January 22, the 9th Circuit had not yet ruled, although a three-judge panel heard oral arguments on the government’s appeal several months ago.

The Supreme Court’s action did not immediately allow the Defense Department to implement the ban, however. That awaits a ruling by U.S. District Judge George L. Russell, III, who is still considering the government’s motion to dissolve the nationwide preliminary injunction issued on November 21, 2017, by now-retired U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis in Baltimore in Stone v. Trump. That case was reassigned to Judge Russell after Judge Garbis retired last June. On November 30, Judge Russell issued his only ruling in the case so far, largely affirming an August 14 ruling by Magistrate Judge A. David Copperthite on disputed discovery issues in the case. However, in his November 30 ruling, Judge Russell rejected the government’s contention that certain “findings of fact” by Judge Copperthite were unreasonable. Among those were Copperthite’s finding that the version of the ban announced by Defense Secretary James Mattis in February 2018, which Trump authorized Mattis to put into effect, was still a ban on military service by transgender people, despite differences from the version described by the White House in an August 2017 memorandum.

On January 4, 2019, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit vacated a similar preliminary injunction that was issued on October 31, 2017, by Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the District Court in Washington, D.C., and directed Judge Kollar-Kotelly to reconsider her conclusion that the version of the ban that President Trump authorized Mattis to implement was essentially the same ban that she had enjoined. The D.C. Circuit panel unanimously ruled, based on the government’s allegations about the differences in the policies, that her conclusion was “clearly erroneous.” The D.C. Circuit’s ruling was, of course, not binding on Judge Russell, because Maryland is under the jurisdiction of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, but it may influence Judge Russell’s consideration of that issue while he ponders how to rule on the government’s motion pending in his court.

The government’s position in all four of the pending cases challenging the constitutionality of the ban has been that the “Mattis Policy” announced in February 2018 was significantly different from the version of the ban described in Trump’s August 2017 Memorandum, and thus that the four preliminary injunctions against the August 2017 version should be vacated as moot.

The government now takes the position that the so-called “Mattis Policy,” which bans service by individuals who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, is no longer a categorical ban of all transgender service members, as described in Trump’s notorious tweets of July 26, 2017. For one thing, the Mattis Policy carves out an exception, allowing transgender individuals who are already serving to continue doing so despite being diagnosed with gender dysphoria, although those who have not transitioned when the new policy goes into effect will not be allowed to do so and still remain in the service. (This exception, of course, contradicts the government’s argument that individuals diagnosed with gender dysphoria are not fit to serve.) For another thing, the Defense Department contends that because not all individuals who identify as transgender have either been diagnosed with gender dysphoria or desire to make a medical transition, the basis for the disqualification for military service has effectively been shifted by the Mattis Policy from gender identity to gender dysphoria. As such, the government argues, the district courts’ conclusion that the ban discriminates on the basis of transgender status in violation of Equal Protection no longer applies. Instead, the ban is based on a medical condition, as to which the courts should defer to military expertise, because courts have never second-guessed the military’s determination that people with a diagnosed medical condition may be unfit to serve.

The Supreme Court’s action does not grant the government’s request to dissolve the preliminary injunctions that were issued in December 2017 by District Judges Marsha J. Pechman (Seattle) and Jesus Bernal (Riverside, California), and thus should not be interpreted as taking a position on whether those injunctions should have been issued, but merely agrees to the government’s request to stay their effect while the 9th Circuit decides how to rule on the government’s appeal from those district judges’ denial of the government’s motions to dissolve the injunctions. In the meantime, all four district courts are dealing with contentious arguments as the government refuses to comply with the plaintiffs’ discovery demands, making it difficult for the courts to proceed with the cases. These cases are raising significant issues about the extent to which the government should be forced to disclose details of its decision-making process that are crucial to determining whether the policy they are now defending was adopted for constitutionally impermissible reasons.

Attention now focuses on Judge Russell, whose eventual ruling on the government’s motion to dissolve Judge Garbis’s preliminary injunction will decide, at least for the moment, whether the transgender ban goes into effect or remains blocked while the litigation continues. If Judge Russell follows the lead of the other district judges, he will deny the motion and Solicitor General Francisco will likely petition the Supreme Court to grant a stay similar to the ones issued on January 22. The question now is whether Judge Russell finds the D.C. Circuit’s analysis to be persuasive. If he does, the ban may go into effect, even as all four cases challenging the ban continue to be fiercely litigated by the plaintiffs.

As to the stays issued on January 22, the Supreme Court’s Order says that if the government is dissatisfied with the 9th Circuit’s disposition of its appeals and files new Petitions for Supreme Court review, the stays will remain in effect. If the Court ultimately denies such petitions, “this order shall terminate automatically.” If the Court grants those petitions, the stay would remain in effect until the Supreme Court rules on the appeal.

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Masterpiece Baker Phillips Wins a Round in New Lawsuit Against Colorado Civil Rights Officials

Masterpiece Cakeshop baker Jack Phillips is back in court again, this time suing officials of Colorado’s Civil Rights agency and the state’s attorney general and governor to try to block the Commission from continuing a case against him for refusing to make a custom-designed cake to celebrate a transgender attorney’s celebration of the anniversary of her transition. On February 4, Senior U.S. District Judge Wiley Y. Daniel largely rejected a motion by defendants to dismiss the case, although he narrowed its scope somewhat.

For those coming in late to this ongoing drama: Phillips and Masterpiece Cakeshop were found by the Commission and the Colorado Court of Appeals to have violated the state’s public accommodations law when he refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple in 2012 because of his religious objection to same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed those decisions in a 7-2 ruling last June 4, based on the Court’s conclusion that the state had not afforded Phillips a “neutral” forum to consider his 1st Amendment defense.

Part of the Court’s conclusion that the Commission was “hostile” to Phillips on religious grounds rested on the Commission’s treatment of a provocateur named William Jack. While the discrimination claim by a gay couple was pending before the Commission, Jack approached three Colorado bakeries that custom-decorate cakes, asking them to make cakes for him that “conveyed disapproval of same-sex marriage, along with religious text,” quoting here from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s opinion for the Supreme Court. All the bakers turned him down, stating that they “objected to those cakes’ messages and would not create them for anyone.” Jack filed discrimination charges against the bakeries, but after investigating his charges, the Colorado Civil Rights Division found no “probable cause” that the statute was violated, and the Commission affirmed that determination.

The Supreme Court seized upon the Commission’s response to Jack’s provocation, saying that the Commission’s hostility was evident in “the difference in treatment between Phillips’ case and the cases of other bakers who objected to a requested cake on the basis of conscience and prevailed before the Commission.” The Civil Rights Division ruled in Phillips’ case that “any message the requested wedding cake would carry would be attributed to the customer, not the baker,” while “the Division did not address this point in any of the other cases with respect to the cakes depicting anti-gay marriage symbolism.” Justice Kennedy also critically noted that “the Division found no violation of the Act in the other cases in part because each bakery was willing to sell other products to the prospective customers” but the “Commission dismissed Phillips’ willingness to sell birthday cakes, shower cakes, cookies and brownies, to gay and lesbian customers as irrelevant.”

The Supreme Court had announced its decision to grant Jack Phillips’ petition for review on June 26, 2017 – an announcement that received widespread media coverage and apparently prompted Autumn Scardia, a transgender attorney, to take a leaf from William Jack’s book. She phoned Masterpiece and inquired about getting a cake with a blue exterior and a pink interior to “celebrate her transition from male to female.” Scardina said she wanted the cake for a birthday party she was planning. It was only when she described the color scheme and the reason for it that Phillips turned down the order, stating that he would not make a cake celebrating a gender transition for “any customer, no matter the customer’s protected characteristics.” In his current lawsuit, he alleges that he “offered to create a different custom cake for Scardina or to sell her any of the pre-make items available for purchase.” But she declined to order anything else.

Scardina filed a discrimination charge with the Division. Several weeks after the Supreme Court ruled on the first Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the Division issued a probable cause determination against Phillips for violating the public accommodations law by refusing Scardina’s cake order. While noting the religious reasons cited by Phillips for specifically not making a cake designed to celebrate a gender transition, due to his religious belief that a person’s sex is “an immutable God-given reality,” the Commission nonetheless concluded that “the refusal to provide service to Complainant was based on her transgender status.”

On October 2, 2018, the Commission filed a formal complaint against Phillips based on the Division’s finding, and set the case for a hearing. Anticipating this move, Phillips filed a complaint in federal court on August 14, 2018, which the defendants promptly moved to dismiss. Phillips charges that the state is out to get him, characterizing its actions as “unconstitutional bullying.” After the defendants’ dismissal motion and the Commission’s formal complaint were filed, Phillips filed an amended complaint to take account of these developments. The Commission’s hearing. The hearing has not yet taken place.

Phillips claims that the defendants’ interpretation of the public accommodations law violates his First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech. He also makes a Due Process vagueness claim against the statute, attacking it on several grounds, including a structural charge against the statutory criteria for the appointment of Commission members by the governor, which require, among other things, that several members of the Commission be representative of minority communities protected by the anti-discrimination law. He also asserted an equal protection claim, focused again on the differential treatment cited by the Supreme Court in noting the Commission’s refusal to prosecute the bakers who had turned down William Jack’s order for “anti-same-sex marriage cakes.”

Phillips sought injunctions against the state officials forbidding them from interpreting and enforcing the statute against him. He also sought a judicial declaration about the violation of his constitutional rights, and compensatory, punitive and nominal damages against the Civil Rights Division’s Director, Aubrey Elenis, and the seven members of the Commission.

In ruling on the motion to dismiss, Judge Daniel found that none of the “abstention doctrines” that the federal courts have developed to determine whether to allow federal lawsuits to interfere with state administrative proceedings should apply in this case, and that Phillips had standing to bring this lawsuit, not only because of the proceedings ongoing against him, but also because he wanted to post a policy statement on his business’s website about the basis on which they would refuse to make custom-cakes, but was inhibited from doing so because a section of the public accommodations law states that businesses cannot publish discriminatory policies.

However, Daniel did find that Director Elenis and the individual Civil Rights Commissioners enjoy absolute immunity from personal liability for damages, accepting their argument that they are acting as prosecutors and adjudicators. He wrote that it is “well-established that prosecutors are absolutely immune for activities which are intimately associated with the judicial process such as initiating and pursuing” a prosecution. He found that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, whose rulings are binding on the district court in Colorado, has “extended absolute immunity to state administrative or executive officials serving in adjudicative, judicial, or prosecutorial capacities.”

Furthermore, the judge found that Governor John Hickenlooper should be dismissed as a defendant, since he played no direct role in enforcing the public accommodations law, so suit against him in his official capacity was barred by the 11th Amendment. Just in time, it seems, since Hickenlooper’s term ended a few days after the court issued it January 4 decision, with Governor Jared Polis taking office on January 8. This decision means that Polis, the state’s (and nation’s) first out gay man to be elected a governor, did not become a defendant in this lawsuit immediately on taking office!

However, the court refused to dismiss the Attorney General, Cynthia Coffman, from the case, finding that the attorney general’s role of representing the Commission in court did make that office potentially subject to injunctive relief. Once again, however, the timing was fortuitous, since Coffman’s term has also ended, as Phil Weiser took office as attorney general on January 8, and the defense of this case will be carried on by his office.

Of course, Phillips is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, the right-wing Christian litigation group that represented him in appealing the wedding cake decision to the Supreme Court. Not coincidentally, ADF also represents Harris Funeral Homes, seeking Supreme Court review of the 6th Circuit’s decision that Harris violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act when it fired a transgender funeral director, as well as anonymous plaintiffs who are asking the Supreme Court to overturn the 3rd Circuit’s decision rejecting a constitutional challenge to the Boyertown, Pennsylvania, school district’s transgender-affirmative facilities access policy. One of the best ways to keep up with some major cases in LGBT-related litigation is to periodically visit ADF’s website.

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D.C. Circuit Panel Dissolves Preliminary Injunction Against Trump Trans Military Ban

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled on January 4 that U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly should not have denied a motion earlier this year by the Justice Department to dissolve a preliminary injunction she issued more than a year ago to block the Trump Administration’s ban on transgender military service from going into effect. The court did not issue a formal opinion, instead releasing a “Judgement” that was not designated for publication, although it indicated that “separate opinions” by the judges “will be filed at a later date.”  The case is now called Jane Doe 2 v. Shanahan, as Trump has been removed as an individual defendant, and Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan is now the lead defendant.

The ruling, although quickly described in the press as a victory for the Trump Administration, will have no immediate effect, because nationwide preliminary injunctions against implementation of the ban issued by three other U.S. District Courts remain in effect. However, the explanation issued by the judges marks the first time that any federal judge has found it appropriate to adopt a deferential standard of review either to Trump’s original policy declaration pronounced through twitter messages on July 26, 2017, to a subsequent White House memo amplifying the policy, or to the policy adopted for implementation by former Defense Secretary James Mattis with the president’s approval in February 2018.

In her October 30, 2017, ruling granting the plaintiffs’ motion for a nationwide preliminary injunction against implementation of the ban, Judge Kollar-Kotelly found that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on the merits of their claim that the ban announced by Trump in July and amplified in the August 2017 memorandum violated their equal protection rights under the 5th Amendment, and allowing the ban to go into effect would cause irreparable injury to the plaintiffs while not shown to be harmful to national security, as alleged by the government.  See 275 F. Supp.3d 167.

Judge Kollar-Kotelly was the first to enjoin the ban, but three other district courts issued similar opinions authorizing virtually identical nationwide preliminary injunctions over the ensuing weeks, from courts located in Baltimore, Maryland, Seattle, Washington, and Riverside, California.

While the litigation was going on in the district courts, Secretary Mattis appointed a task force as directed in the White House memorandum, to devise an implementation plan for the ban. This was submitted to the president in February, 2018, in response to which he issued a new memorandum revoking his prior memorandum and authorizing Mattis to implement the plan he had proposed. Mattis’s plan was accompanied by a Report purportedly devised by this Task Force of “experts” (none of them named in the document or otherwise), although knowledgeable observers noted striking resemblances to articles published by conservative think-tanks opposed to transgender rights.

After Mattis adopted the plan for implementation, the Justice Department filed motions in the four district courts arguing that the preliminary injunctions should be dissolved because they were directed at a policy that had been revoked, and the “new” Mattis policy was sufficiently different from what Trump had originally announced to change the analysis. Thus far, three of the district courts have denied the Justice Department’s motion, which is still pending in the fourth court. The three judges who denied the motion all concluded that the Mattis policy was substantially the same as the Trump policy that they had preliminarily enjoined, and that no new development justified allowing the ban to go into effect while the lawsuits played out. In the fourth case, the judge who issued the injunction retired in June 2018 and the case was assigned to a new judge, who has yet to rule on the motion.

The Justice Department appealed the three rulings to the D.C. and 9th Circuit Courts of Appeals. As of January 4, the 9th Circuit had not issued a ruling on the appeal, but had refused to stay the injunctions issued by the district judges in Seattle and Riverside.

Impatient at the pace of litigation, the Solicitor General filed Petitions in the Supreme Court late in November seeking to leapfrog the courts of appeals and have the Supreme Court directly address whether the preliminary injunctions should be lifted, and then filed motions with the Court in all three cases in December, seeking a “stay” of the injunctions or their narrowing to apply only to the plaintiffs rather than to have nationwide effect. Those petitions and motions had been scheduled by the Court to be discussed in its private conference on January 11.

The D.C. Circuit panel that ruled on January 4 consisted of Judges Thomas B. Griffith (appointed by George W. Bush), Robert L. Wilkins (appointed by Barack Obama), and Senior Judge Stephen F. Williams (appointed by Ronald Reagan).

The panel found that Judge Kollar-Kotelly had “clearly” erred in concluding that the Mattis policy adopted in February 2018 was substantially the same as the Trump policy that she had preliminarily enjoined in October 2017. The court pointed out that unlike the original policy, Mattis’s plan was not a total ban. It “grandfathers” currently serving transgender personnel who had “come out” in reliance on former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s lifting of the long-standing ban on transgender military service effective July 1, 2016, many of whom then initiated transition, including in some cases complete surgical gender affirmation, and were successfully serving in the gender with which they identify. Mattis would let them continue to serve.

Furthermore, seeking to escape the equal protection arguments made by the plaintiffs and preliminarily accepted by the district judges, Mattis’s “experts” had reconfigured the ban to be based not on transgender identity, but rather on a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria,” the term used in the most recent addition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Now the government was arguing that it was disqualifying people who had been diagnosed with a professionally recognized medical condition, which the DSM describes in terms of symptoms that – at least as described in the DSM – would sound disabling.

Under Mattis’s version of the policy, anybody diagnosed with gender dysphoria would be disqualified from enlisting or from continuing to serve, unless they were “grandfathered” under the policy. Individuals who identify as transgender but have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria would be allowed to enlist and serve, provided they did not seek to transition and would serve in the gender with which they were identified at birth, called by the policy their “biological sex.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the four cases have pointed out that this is a semantic game, but the court of appeals indulges the government’s distinction between status and medical diagnosis, pointing out that the lawyers for the plaintiffs have stated in their briefs and arguments that not all transgender people are diagnosed with gender dysphoria or seek to transition. Thus, in the view of the court, agreeing with the Justice Department, the policy does not ban service by transgender people, as such – just by those diagnosed with gender dysphoria or who wish to transition and serve in other than their sex identified at birth.

The district judges had found that in practical terms this amounted to the same transgender ban that Trump had proclaimed, with the exception of the “grandfathered” personnel, estimated at about 900 people according to the January 4 D.C. Circuit ruling. But the court of appeals disagreed, finding it different.

Furthermore, said the court, since Mattis claimed to have adopted this policy on the recommendation of an “expert” Task Force that had produced a report, it was entitled to the judicial deference normally accorded to military personnel policies. For purposes of deciding on preliminary injunctive relief, the court of appeals found that the district court should have essentially taken the Justice Department’s representation of the policy at face value and not concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their equal protection claim.

At the same time, the D.C. panel said that it was not speaking to the ultimate merits of the case. The court said that it was vacating the preliminary injunction but “without prejudice,” which means that it is possible that after discovery has been concluded, the plaintiffs could come back and try to persuade the court that the policy was not entitled to deference and was not justified for the purposes cited by the government. This does not allow the ban to go into effect, as noted above, because nationwide preliminary injunctions remain in effect in three other cases.

Since the D.C. Circuit’s ruling gives the government exactly what it sought in its appeal, the Solicitor General should be withdrawing his petition and motion from the Supreme Court in this case. But since the 9th Circuit has not ruled on the other two appeals, the Petitions filed in those cases will still be before the Supreme Court at its January 11 conference. And the D.C. Circuit’s ruling may influence the district court in Baltimore, which has yet to rule on the government’s motion to dissolve the injunction in that case.

The plaintiffs are represented by Kevin Matthew Lamb, Paul Reinherz Quitma Wolfson, Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr, LLP, Washington, DC, Adam M. Cambier, Christopher R. Looney, Harriet Hoder, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, Boston, MA, Alan E. Schoenfeld, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, LLP, New York, NY, Amy Whelan, Christopher F. Stoll, Shannon P. Minter, National Center for Lesbian Rights, San Francisco, CA, Claire Laporte, Daniel L. McFadden, Kathleen M. Brill, Matthew E. Miller, Michael J. Licker, Rachel C. Hutchinson, Foley Hoag, LLP, Boston, MA, Jennifer Levi, Mary L. Bonauto, GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, Boston, MA, and Nancy Lynn Schroeder, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, Los Angeles, CA.

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Court Orders New York State to Pay Brooklyn Woman $125,000 for Using Her Photo in HIV Discrimination Ad Campaign

New York Court of Claims Judge Thomas H. Scuccimarra has decided that the State of New York should pay Avril Nolan $125,000 for using her photo in an HIV Discrimination Advertising Campaign without a disclaimer that the person in the picture was a “model.” The November 8 ruling came after the Appellate Division court in Brooklyn ruled last January that the use of the photo in print and on-line advertisements, in which the statement “I AM POSITIVE (+)” appeared next to the photo, was defamatory as a matter of law, and sent the case back to the Court of Claims for a determination of damages. Ms. Nolan is not HIV-positive.

The case is Nolan v. State of New York, 2018 N.Y. Misc. LEXIS 5887, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op 51789(U) (Ct. Claims, Nov. 8, 2018).

According to Judge Scuccimarra’s opinion, “Jena Cumbo, the photographer, had taken the photograph as part of a ‘street-style’ photography piece for Soma magazine, briefly profiling those photographed about their musical interests.” Cumbo did not have Nolan sign a release and, without asking her permission, sold the photograph to Getty Images, a company that compiles and sells stock photos for use in publications, advertisements, and so forth.

The State Division of Human Rights, which enforces the New York Human Rights Law’s ban on discrimination, was planning an advertising campaign to educate the public that it is illegal to discriminate against people because they are living with HIV. Instead of finding people living with HIV who might be willing to be photographed for such advertising, the DHR contacted Getty Images and bought the right to use Nolan’s photograph. Getty mistakenly represented to SDHR that Nolan had signed a general release for use of her photograph.

The Court of Claims hearing about damages to be awarded to Nolan focused on how she heard about the advertisement, her subsequent contacts with AM New York, which ran the ad, and the DHR, and the impact its publication had on her life.

Nolan, an Irish immigrant who was working for a public relations company in the fashion industry when the ad was published, learned about the ad on the morning of April 3, 2013, when she arrived at work and saw a notice an acquaintance had posted on her Facebook page, asking whether she had been in that morning’s issue of AM New York. She later received a private message from the same acquaintance with an image of the advertisement. She testified that when she saw the image she “was completely shocked” and “confused,” seeing the “words, ‘I am positive,’ beside my face, I was devastated.” She testified that she felt her “world was just falling down around her,” especially because AM New York was a “big target” for two of her clients, including an important new one.

She got a copy of the newspaper, and testified that she felt “sick to the bottom of my stomach.” She feared for her career in the intensely competitive atmosphere of the office where she was working. On advice of a friend, she told her bosses that morning, showing them the newspaper. She testified that she was “very, very emotional” and “couldn’t stop crying” as she spoke to them. Although her bosses expressed shock, she says that they “calmly went into crisis PR mode,” assessing how it could have happened and whether any clients could have seen it. They did not fire her, as she had feared.

She contacted the photographer, her mother (a psychologist, in Ireland), some friends, and an aunt who had been her mentor when she arrived in New York. Her aunt said she would find a lawyer to represent her.

The photographer contacted AM New York, Getty and the DHR, and put Nolan in touch with a DHR employee by email, who informed her, “After speaking with a Getty representative we have been told we are not liable. We are acting in good faith to remove the image based on the model’s request.” The DHR spokesperson asked Nolan to send them an email stating she would not hold DHR liable and said, “We need the email sooner rather than later as a number of publications are on deadline and are scheduled to move forward with the campaign with Ms. Nolan’s image.” Nolan responded, “Discussing this matter to get further advice but please remove my image from the advertisements. This has already caused enough problems and embarrassment.”

After her email to DHR, Nolan heard nothing further from the State to discuss the ad, but publication was quickly discontinued. Nolan testified to suffering considerable emotional distress, but over the next few months the constant thoughts about who might have seen the ad and how it might affect her subsided, although she claimed it took “a couple years” to rebuild her confidence. It was not until the discovery process for this lawsuit that she found out that the ad had been used in four print publications and three online publications, which triggered again her concerns about how many people might have seen it. Despite a few incidents, the issue generally did not come up or have any substantial effect on her work.

When she was asked during the hearing about what this “association with HIV” meant to her, she testified that while unfortunate, there is “so much stigma around it. . . It’s not like I was in an ad for cancer treatment” where sympathy would be elicited. “There’s a lot of negativity around it,” she testified, “and there’s a lot of associations that people jump to incorrectly about your lifestyle. People think you’re easy, or you’re promiscuous. There’s a lot of just questions around your sexual behavior and your sexual activity. It makes people really think about something so personal to you. It also brings up drug use and just all of these things that I did not want to be associated with and was very embarrassed to be associated with. This goes much deeper, and it really calls into question you as a person and your lifestyle.”

Wrote Judge Scuccimarra, “On cross-examination, claimant confirmed that she did not lose her job nor did she miss any time from work when the advertisement came out. She did not lose any friends. No one other than the acquaintance who first told her about the ad, her Pilates teacher and the outside producer [from an ad shoot] ever informed her that they recognized her as the person depicted in the ad. Indeed, when claimant conducted an online search that day she was unable to see a copy of the advertisement.”

The judge reviewed testimony by several witnesses about the psychological impact of the ad on Nolan, leading to the conclusion that she had been tense and nervous in the period following the publication, but the effects dissipated with time and eventually returned to normal.

As the Appellate Division had ruled back in January, for the purposes of defamation liability falsely labelling somebody as HIV positive fell into the “loathsome disease” category, in spite of changing public attitudes about HIV/AIDS, in which some injury is presumed and the plaintiff is entitled to damages without any requirement to show financial harm. However, the amount to award is up to the discretion of the court, taking into account all the circumstances, and courts will engage in comparisons with the amounts awarded in other cases, comparing the factual situations on some rough scale of fair compensation. Judge Scuccimarra wrote, “the court credits Ms. Nolan’s assessment of a culture of competition at her job, and in the public relations field generally, that left her particularly vulnerable as a young woman to the extreme anxiety and distress she suffered upon publication of the defamatory material. The court also credits the increased anxiety she experienced when imagining how many people could potentially see the ad and make judgments about her that she feared. By all accounts, Ms. Nolan was sensitive, but had learned to hide her feelings somewhat in her two years in the competitive world of New York fashion public relations. This event credibly triggered a setback for her in her confidence and outward demeanor, but she appears to have come out of the experience. She did not lose friends or beaux, and ultimately moved on from her job and succeeded in a new venture.”

The judge decided that based on the “humiliation, mental suffering, anxiety and loss of confidence suffered by this young woman at the beginning of her career, and at the beginning of her growing independence, the vast extent to which the defamatory material was circulated – albeit for the laudatory purpose of getting public service information out to as many people as possible – and all the circumstances herein,” a reasonable compensation would be $125,000, with appropriate interest from the date of the determination of liability on June 18, 2015, which was the date when Judge Scuccamarra had first ruled in her favor prior to the state’s appeal, as well as a refund to her of the fees for filing her lawsuit in the Court of Claims.

Nolan was represented by attorney Erin E. Lloyd of the firm Lloyd Patel LLP. Assistant Attorney General Cheryl M. Rameau of the Attorney General’s Office represented the State of New York.

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Kentucky Appellate Court Rejects Lesbian Co-Parent Custody/Visitation Claim, Reversing Family Court

Adopting a narrow construction of the Kentucky Supreme Court’s historic same-sex co-parent ruling, Mullins v. Picklesimer, 317 S.W.3d 569 (Ky. 2010), a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals of Kentucky, ruling on November 30, reversed a decision by Jefferson Circuit Court Judge Deana D. McDonald, and ruled that Teri Whitehouse, the former union partner of Tammie Delaney, is not entitled to joint custody and parenting time with a child born to Delaney during the women’s relationship.  From comments in concurring opinions, it seems clear that this Kentucky Court of Appeals panel deems the U.S. Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision, Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015), to require a bright-line test, under which it will be extremely difficult for unmarried partners to claim parental rights.  The opinion confirms the fears of some critics of the marriage equality movement who predicted that achieving same-sex marriage could undermine the interests of LGBT parents who chose not to marry.

The case is Delaney v. Whitehouse, 2018 WL 6266774, 2018 Ky. App. Unpub. LEXIS 844 (Ky. Ct. App., Nov. 30, 2018).  The court designated the opinion as “not to be published,” which means it is not supposed to be cited and argued as precedent for any other case, although Kentucky court rules say that an “unpublished” decision may be cited for consideration by a court if there is no published opinion that would adequately address the issue before the court.  The whole idea of “unpublished” decisions is archaic, of course, when such opinions are released and published in full text in on-line legal services such as Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg Law, and readily available to practicing lawyers and the courts.

The opinion for the panel by Judge Robert G. Johnson (whose term expired after he wrote the opinion but before it was released by the court) accepts Judge McDonald’s factual findings, but disputes their legal significance.  McDonald found that the parties were in a romantic relationship and participated jointly in the decision to have a child, including the insemination process.  “The parties treated each other as equal partners and clearly intended to create a parent-like relationship” between Whitehead and the child, found Judge McDonald, who also found that “they held themselves out as the parents of this child since before conception.  They engaged in the process of selecting a [sperm] donor together, they attended appointments prior to insemination together, [Whitehouse] was present for the birth, and she has been known to the child as Momma.  The parties participated in a union ceremony, after the birth of the child, and they held themselves out as a family unit with friends and family.”

Judge McDonald referred to Mullins v. Picklesimer, finding that some factual distinctions between the cases were not significant enough to compel a different result, and concluded that Whitehead met her burden of establishing under Mullins that Delaney had waived her “superior right to custody” as the biological mother, and thus had conferred standing on Whitehouse to seek joint custody and parenting time after the parties’ relationship terminated.

The Appellate Court disagreed.  Johnson found that in Mullins, a case decided by the closely divided state supreme court voting 4-3, the court stated that “legal waiver ‘is a voluntary and intentional surrender or relinquishment of a known right, or an election to forego an advantage which the party at his option might have demanded or insisted upon.’”  Also, he noted, the Kentucky Supreme Court “emphasized that although there need not be a written or formal waiver, ‘statements and supporting circumstances must be equivalent to an express waiver to meet the burden of proof.’”

“While it is indisputable that some of the factors set out in Mullins are present in this case,” wrote Johnson, “we are persuaded that those factors fall short of the clear and convincing proof required to establish waiver.  It seems clear that both parties agreed to artificial insemination for the purpose of having a child, that both parties shared parenting responsibilities to some extent, and that for a relatively short period of time they held themselves out as a family unit.  However, ‘no specific set of factors must be present in order to find there has been a waiver.’”  The court in Mullins found “a myriad of factors” supporting waiver, including that the women in that case gave their child a hyphenated last name, which was placed on the birth certificate, that they made a formal written agreement bestowing custody rights on the co-parent, and that even after the parties separated, they continued to share custody for a period of five months.  “In contrast,” wrote Johnson, “Delaney and Whitehouse made no efforts to formalize the custody status of the child at any point and the child bore only Delaney’s name.  Although the parties did participate in a union ceremony after the child was born, that was not a legally cognizable marriage ceremony.  Neither did the parties attempt to formalize their relationship after the decision of the United State Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges.”  (One of the concurring judges noted that Obergefell was decided about a month after the parties had their union ceremony.)

“It is also telling,” Johnson wrote, “that the family court found that the parties intended to create a ‘parent-like’ relationship between Whitehouse and the child, not that Delaney specifically intended to confer parental rights on Whitehouse.  Finally, upon the deterioration of her relationship with Whitehouse, Delaney did not allow Whitehouse to continue to participate in parenting responsibilities with the child,” pointing out that the Mullins court had specifically pointed to the continued five months of shared parenting in that case as tending to show that the co-parent was more than merely a friend or caretaker.

“Because we reverse the trial court’s finding that Whitehouse had standing to seek custody and parenting time with Delaney,” wrote Johnson, “we need not address the family court’s best-interests analysis.”  This, of course, demonstrates clearly the inhumanity of the court’s decision.  The trial court, in a ruling as to which the Appellate Court finds no reason to question that court’s factual findings, deems totally irrelevant the trial court’s conclusion that it is in the best interest of this child to order joint custody and parenting time.  This is to be totally ignored, and a situation that is not in the best interest of the child is to be perpetuated, mainly because, as Johnson intimated and as the concurring judges made clear, these women did not formally marry when the opportunity created by Obergefell presented itself.

Concurring Judge Glenn Acree urged that the Kentucky Supreme Court reconsider Mullins in light of Obergefell, arguing that because same-sex couples can marry, there is no longer any need for Kentucky law to recognize parental rights in unmarried co-parents.  “Obergefell changed everything for same-sex relationships,” wrote Acree.  “Necessarily, it changed how we assess whether a parent has partially waived her constitutional right to raise her child, partial waiver being the theory invented in Mullin.  This case is an illustration.”  He noted that Obergefell was decided within thirty days of the parties’ non-legal union ceremony, so “they had the right and opportunity to legally marry.  They chose not to do so.  Considering the Supreme Court’s emphasis in Obergefell on the importance of the marital relationship, legal significance must be given to a decision not to marry.  Electing not to marry when the opportunity is available should be deemed to fully contradict all allegations by anyone seeking rights to another person’s child based on the Mullins partial waiver theory.  Otherwise, marriage means far less than Obergefell indicates.”

Judge Acree goes on to quote Justice Anthony Kennedy’s flowery description of marriage, stating that this “sentiment permeates the opinion and uplifts the institution of marriage as few opinions have.  In my view, it is not an insincere capitulation to social pressure.  The opinion signals new the judiciary’s recognition of the majesty of marriage.”  Acree advocates a bright line test based on Obergefell, leaving out in the cold all unmarried same-sex partners, regardless of the quality or depth of their relationship with the child.  He argued that failure to adopt such a bright line test “will invite other individuals, and even groups, whether they cohabit with a biological or adoptive parent or not, to claim the partial waiver Mullins invented.”  And, as his parting shot, he wrote, “Although ‘it takes a village’ is a catchy cant, the nucleus of a family is not made up of loose threads of casual affection.  It is a tightly woven fabric of unifying love amongst two parents and their children.

Concurring, Judge Gene Smallwood, Jr., joined with Acree in encouraging the Kentucky Supreme Court to “revisit” the Mullins decision and overrule it, asserting that the dissenting opinion in Mullins had “proven true” and, quoting from a dissenting opinion in another case, wrote, “Mullins was decided as it was because of, and as a way of avoiding the pre-Obergefell prohibitions” on same-sex marriage.  “The conceived basis for the court’s opinion in Mullins no longer exists,” he insisted, urging that the state’s high court “reaffirm all prior precedence on this issue and return the legal standing of parenthood to the safe mooring of the law as guaranteed by the Supreme Court of the United States in Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000).”  Troxel held unconstitutional a state law that allowed third parties, such as grandparents, to seek visitation rights with children over the protest of their biological parents, affirming strong constitutional protection for the right of legal parents to exclude other adults from contact with their children.  Many state courts have distinguished Troxel from cases involving same-sex parent presenting facts similar to those in this case of Delaney v. Whitehead.

Teri Whitehouse is represented by Hugh W. Barrow of Louisville.  Tammie Delaney is represented by Louis P. Winner and Kristin M. Birkhold, also of Louisville.  One would anticipate an appeal to the Kentucky Supreme Court, and the case cries out for LGBT rights movement participation, since an overruling of Mullins could endanger the parental rights of numerous unmarried co-parents in Kentucky.

 

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Federal Government Asks the Supreme Court to Delay Deciding Whether Title VII Bars Gender Identity Discrimination

The Trump Administration has asked the Supreme Court to hold off for now on deciding whether gender identity discrimination is covered under the ban on employment discrimination “because of sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco and several other Justice Department attorneys are listed on a brief filed with the Court on October 24, ostensibly on behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), arguing that the Court should not now grant review of a decision by the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled earlier this year that Harris Funeral Homes violated Title VII by discharging Aimee Stephens, a transgender employee, who was transitioning and sought to comply with the employer’s dress code for female employees. The proprietor of the funeral home objected on religious grounds to having an employee whom he regards as a man dressing as a woman at work. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 18-107.

The government’s move came as something of a surprise, in light of recent news that a memorandum, originating from the Civil Rights Office in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is circulating within the Trump Administration proposing to adopt a regulation defining “sex” in terms solely of genitals and chromosomes and thus, effectively, excluding “gender identity” as part of the definition of sex for purposes of federal law.

The Solicitor General’s brief argues that instead, the Court should focus on one or both of two Petitions now pending that seek review of decisions by the 2nd Circuit and the 11th Circuit on the question whether sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited by Title VII. In the former case, Zarda v. Altitude Express, the en banc 2nd Circuit reversed prior circuit precedents and ruled that sexual orientation claims are covered by Title VII, following the lead of the 7th Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College (2017). In the other case, Bostock v. Clayton County, an 11th Circuit three-judge panel rejected a similar sexual orientation discrimination claim, and the circuit court turned down a petition for rehearing by the full circuit. In the Supreme Court, these cases are Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, No. 17-1618, and Altitude Express v. Zarda, No. 17-1623.

In those two cases, the central question for the Court to decide is whether Title VII’s use of the term “sex” should be construed as the Trump Administration contends that it should be, as the simple difference between male and female as identified at birth, usually by the doctor’s visual inspection of genitals, or whether it should receive a broad interpretation that the EEOC and some lower federal courts have embraced, extending protection against discrimination to LGBTQ people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity as form of “discrimination because of sex.” This argument, for those preoccupied with the presumed legislative intent of the drafters and adopters of legislation, is based on the proposition that the Congress of 1964 did not intend to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination when they voted to include “sex” as a prohibited ground of employment discrimination in Title VII.

Referring to the pending sexual orientation case petitions, General Francisco’s brief argues, “If the Court grants plenary review in Zarda, Bostock, or both to address that question, its decision on the merits may bear on the proper analysis of the issues petitioner raises [in this case]. The court of appeals here relied on the reasoning of decisions (including Zarda) holding that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination extends to sexual-orientation discrimination. Accordingly, the Court should hold the petition in this case pending its disposition of the petitions in Zarda and Bostock and, if certiorari is granted in either or both of those cases, pending the Court’s decision on the merits.” If the Court were to grant review in Zarda and/or Bostock, oral argument would be held sometime in the Spring with a decision expected by the end of June 2019, at which time the Court could send the Funeral Homes case back to the 6th Circuit for reconsideration in light of its decision in the sexual orientation cases, avoiding deciding the gender identity question itself. The Supreme Court has yet to issue a ruling on the question whether either the Constitution or federal statues protect transgender people from discrimination because of their gender identity.

Francisco’s brief also argues that the Court should not grant review in the Funeral Home case even if it decides not to review the sexual orientation cases. “To be sure,” says the brief, “the United States disagrees with the court of appeals’ decision. As relevant here, the court’s analysis of whether petitioner engaged in improper sex stereotyping reflects a misreading of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989). The court’s further conclusion that gender-identity discrimination necessarily constitutes discrimination because of sex in violation of Title VII – although it was unnecessary to the ultimate result the court reached in this case – is also inconsistent with the statute’s text and this Court’s precedent. Both of those questions are recurring and important.”

This immediately raises the question why the Court should refuse to grant review to decide questions that are “recurring and important”? The Solicitor General’s response to that question appears to be improvised to cover over a difficult political transition that will eventually take place at the EEOC, the agency that filed suit against the Funeral Home on behalf of Aimee Stephens and is nominally the respondent on this petition at the Supreme Court.

President Trump has nominated three commissioners, one of whom, out lesbian Chai Feldblum (who was first appointed by President Obama and whose current term expires at the end of this year), has inspired fervent opposition from several Republican Senators. The other two nominees are Republicans whom the current Senate leadership would eagerly approve, but the three nominations were presented as a package, in recognition of the statutory requirement that no more than three of the five EEOC commissioners may be members of the same party, and the package has not moved in the Senate because of opposition to Feldblum. As of now, the EEOC has three commissioners – two Democrats and one Republican – and continues to take discrimination complaints under Title VII from LGBTQ people. If the package of nominees is approved, the new Republican majority of commissioners would likely come into line with the Justice Department’s position that Title VII does not cover such claims. If the “package” is not approved during the lame duck session of Congress, the EEOC will not be able to decide cases beginning on January 1, because it will lack a quorum of at least three Senate-confirmed commissioners. And the question of which party controls the next Senate will certainly affect which Trump nominees can be approved after January 3 when the new Senate convenes.

Setting aside the politics for the moment, however, the Solicitor General’s pragmatic argument is that there is a significant split among the circuit courts on the sexual orientation issues, which requires the Supreme Court to resolve with some urgency. But, says the brief, “Fewer circuits have addressed the questions presented in this case, and the panel decision here appears to be the first court of appeals decision to conclude in a Title VII case that gender identity discrimination categorically constitutes discrimination because of sex under that statute. If the Court determines that the question raised in Zarda and Bostock does not warrant plenary review at this time, the questions presented here would likewise not appear to warrant review at this juncture.”

Attorneys from the ACLU representing Aimee Stephens also filed a response to the Harris Funeral Homes’ petition on October 24. They argue that the Court should deny the petition.

They note that the Funeral Homes petition’s first “Question Presented” is “Whether the word ‘sex’ in Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination ‘because of sex’ meant ‘gender identity’ and included ‘transgender status’ when Congress enacted Title VII in 1964.” They argue that this case is a “poor vehicle for addressing petitioner’s first question because deciding it would not affect the judgment” of the lower court. This is because, simply stated, the 6th Circuit decided this case on alternative grounds, one of which was relying on a sex stereotyping theory (that the Funeral Home fired Stephens for not complying with the employer’s stereotype about how a genitally-male person should groom and dress), the other of which identified discrimination because of gender identity as a form of sex discrimination. So answering the first question in the negative would still leave the lower court’s judgment intact on the first – and widely-accepted – sex stereotyping theory. Note that this first “Question Presented” is only relevant at all if the Court attributes any special weight to what the adaptors of statutory language thought it meant at the time they adopted it: an originalist approach to statutory interpretation that the Court itself rejected in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services in 1998.

The second question in the Funeral Homes petition is whether Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins “prohibits employers from applying sex-specific policies according to their employees’ sex rather than their gender identity.” As to that, the ACLU’s brief argues that the second question “was not adjudicated below and is not properly presented” to the Court in this case, because, first, the 6th Circuit held that Stephens was fired “based on multiple sex stereotypes, not only those related to the dress code,” and second, that the 6th Circuit “expressly did not address the lawfulness of sex-specific dress codes” in its decision, and that “sex-specific restroom policies” – an issue alluded to in the Funeral Homes petition — “are not at issue in this case.” Citing cases from many different circuits, the brief also argues that the 6th Circuit’s ruling “does not conflict with Price Waterhouse or any court of appeals.” Over the years since 1989, numerous circuit courts have accepted transgender discrimination claims using the sex stereotyping theory that the Supreme Court articulated in Price Waterhouse.

The government’s brief is undoubtedly disappointing to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the right-wing religious litigation group that is representing the Funeral Homes and urgently seeks review in this case, seemingly confident that the newly constituted Republican majority in the Supreme Court would likely overturn the 6th Circuit’s decision. After the Supreme Court Clerk listed the two sexual orientation petitions on the agenda for the Court’s end-of-September conference, ADF sent a letter to the Clerk, suggesting that the Court defer deciding whether to review those cases until after briefing was completed on the Funeral Homes petition – which was delayed because the Solicitor General twice requested and received from the Court an extension of time to file its response on behalf of the EEOC. ADF argued that the underlying questions in all three cases were related, so the Court should take them up together. Shortly after the letter was entered on the Court’s docket, the sexual orientation cases were removed from the agenda for the Court’s cert conference, and they had not been relisted for consideration. Now ADF finds the government arguing that the Court should not take up the cases together, and that the gender identity case should be deferred until the sexual orientation cases are decided, and should not even be addressed by the Court now if the Court decides not to take up the sexual orientation cases! ADF would likely see this as a lost opportunity to get the new Supreme Court majority to cut short the successful campaign by civil rights litigators to get federal courts to find protection for LGBTQ people under federal sex discrimination laws, an easier route to protection than passage of the Equality Act, which has been languishing in Congress for several years, denied even a hearing by the Republican-controlled chambers.

Although the S.G. attributed its requests for extensions of time to the need to deal with many other cases, it is possible that the S.G. was stalling in hopes that the new majority of EEOC commissioners would be quickly confirmed, and that the Commission would bring its position in line with the Justice Department (DOJ). Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an internal DOJ memo on October 4, 2017, rejecting any interpretation of Title VII (or other federal sex discrimination laws, such as Title IX of the Education Amendments Act or the Fair Housing Act) that covered gender identity or sexual orientation. During the early months of the Trump Administration, the Justice Department and the Education Department (DOE) abandoned the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX, getting the Supreme Court to cancel an argument under that statute in transgender teen Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit against a Virginia school district over bathroom access, and DOE has stopped accepting and process discrimination claims from transgender students. Thus, DOJ may feel that it can overturn the Obama Administration’s expansive interpretation of sex discrimination laws without having to win a case in the Supreme Court. The government’s brief devotes several pages to restating the Sessions memorandum’s interpretation of Title VII and criticizing the 6th Circuit’s decision on the merits.

Court watchers noted something interesting about the brief filed by the Solicitor General. The list of attorneys on the brief does not include any lawyers from the EEOC, which is unusual when the government is representing a federal agency in a Supreme Court appeal of one of their lower court victories. In this case, of course, DOJ and the EEOC have a strong disagreement about the correct interpretation of Title VII, so DOJ, representing the Trump Administration’s position, is not inclined to let the lingering Democratic majority at the Commission have any say in how this case is argued at the Supreme Court.

With the government opposing its own victory in the lower court, the only party left to defend the lower court’s ruling is Aimee Stephens with her counsel from the ACLU, whose brief is signed by attorneys from the ACLU Foundation in Chicago, the ACLU Fund of Michigan, the ACLU LGBT Rights Project headquartered in New York, and the ACLU Foundation’s office in Washington.

Of course, if the Supreme Court ultimately decides to grant review in any of these Title VII cases, it can expect a barrage of amicus curiae briefs similar to the record-setting number filed in last term’s Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

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