New York Law School

Art Leonard Observations

Texas Federal Court Will Allow Surviving Same-Sex Partner to Replead Claim for Death Benefits

On May 21, U.S. District Judge Jane J. Boyle issued a ruling in a complicated employee benefits case involving a same-sex partner’s claim to benefits under the employment-related life insurance policy of his late partner.  Ford v. Freemen, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 85178, 2019 WL 2189256 (N.D. Tex.).  The ruling concerned the part of the case in which Rodney Ford sought to hold either Bank of America (BoA) or Prudential Life Insurance Company (Prudential) liable for over $700,000.00, the amount in contention as between Ford and his late partner’a father, to whom Prudential had paid on the Policy.  This ruling did not concern Ford’s claim against Otis Freemen, his late partner’s father.

Rodney Ford and David Freemen lived together as same-sex partners when Freemen worked for MBNA Bank.  MBNA provided a life insurance policy as an employee benefit.  In 1996, Freemen completed a beneficiary designation form designating Ford as “100% beneficiary” under the policy.  Freemen continued actively to work for MBNA until 2005, when he left active active employment on long-term disability.  From 2005 until Freemen died in October 2016, Ford alleges that MBNA, and then Bank of America (BoA), which purchased MBNA and took over its obligations to MBNA employees and retirees, and Prudential, the issuer of the life-insurance policy, periodically sent David Freemen information confirming his insured status and that Ford was his beneficiary on the policy.  However, Ford claims, sometime before Freemen died, he “cleaned out” these documents, as a result of which they were not available to Ford after Freemen’s death.

Ford contacted Prudential and BoA to claim survivor benefits under various employee benefit plans, including this life insurance policy.  Prudential responded that there was no beneficiary designation on the life insurance Policy and advised Ford to contact BoA to obtain the original records.  Ford then called BoA and spoke with an HR representative, Kecia Atkins, who told him that she “found your name, but could not (would not) certify that the beneficiary designation applied to the Policy,” according to the allegations of Ford’s complaint.  Ford also alleged that Atkins “stated unequivocally that there was no beneficiary form showing Ford as beneficiary of the Policy.”  Ford then contacted Prudential to ask what would happen in the absence of a written beneficiary designation and was told, accurately, that under the policy the proceeds would go to Freemen’s heirs, meaning, in this instance, his father, Otis Norman Freemen.  The Prudential representative also told him that if he could prove he was a surviving spouse under Texas law, he would take priority over Otis Freemen, but since Rodney and David had not married after Obergefell v. Hodges was decided in 2015, that would mean he would have to prove he was a surviving common law spouse, a difficult but not necessarily impossible task.

Ford decided that rather than go through that, he would approach Otis Freemen to see if they could work out an agreement.  He alleges that Freemen agreed to obtain the proceeds of the policy as heir to his son, and then pay them over to Ford.  The opinion does not mention any further details about this alleged agreement, only to say that Otis Freemen received the death benefit payout and, instead of turning it over to Ford, used to it pay off a mortgage and other debts.  Based on the court’s reference to this as an “alleged” agreement, one infers that a copy of a written agreement was not attached as an exhibit to Ford’s complaint.

In February 2017, Ford filed suit in Texas state court against Freemen, alleging breach of contract for Freemen’s failure to pay over the proceeds from the Policy.  While this litigation was going on, Ford alleges, BoA responded to a discovery subpoena for the Policy records and, lo and behold, the records “showed Ford as the sole 100% beneficiary of the Policy based on the 1996 designation.”  Ford amended his state law complaint to add claims against BoA and Prudential, and they quickly removed the action to federal court, resting jurisdiction on Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).  Since the Policy was provided under an employee benefits plan, it is governed by ERISA.  Then BoA and Prudential moved to dismiss the claims against them, citing ERISA preemption of state law claims and failure by Ford to exhaust administrative remedies under the Policy by filing a claim and appealing any resulting denial as provided in the Policy.  Judge Boyle’s May 21 opinion addresses these motions by the bank and the insurance company.

ERISA expressly preempts all state laws relating to an employee benefits plan.  Under Supreme Court precedents, “state laws” are broadly construed to include common law claims, such as breach of contract or negligence.  The court addressed separately the preemption defenses advanced by BoA and Prudential.

The essence of the state law claim against BoA was negligent misrepresentation.  Ford claimed that Atkins failed to take reasonable care to find the relevant records, which only surfaced later in response to the subpoena, and that Ford had relied upon Atkins’ misrepresentation when he decided to forego attempting to prove surviving spouse status and instead to make a deal with Otis Freemen to obtain the benefit and pay it over to Ford.  The issue for the court was whether Ford’s claim against BoA could be held to “affect an employee benefits plan,” which turned on whether it might be conceptualized as an ERISA claim, in which case the state law claim he had asserted in his complaint would be preempted.  Judge Boyle explained two kinds of ERISA preemption, “complete preemption” and “conflicts preemption,” and explained why she concluded that both theories produced the same result: the state law claim was preempted.  Instead, Ford would have to assert that BoA had violated his rights under ERISA by providing misinformation and failing to verify the beneficiary designation upon David’s death and Ford’s inquiry.  Dismissal of the negligent misrepresentation claim would not necessarily deprive Ford of his cause of action against BoA.  Judge Boyle found it appropriate to dismiss the state law claim, but to allow Ford quickly to replead his claim against BoA as a federal claim under the pertinent provision of ERISA, giving him thirty days to do so.

Turning to Prudential, the court found that Ford has no viable ERISA claim against Prudential.  ERISA would automatically preempt any attempt by Ford to assert a breach of contract claim against Prudential on the assertion that Prudential paid the benefit to the wrong person.  As the issuer of the insurance policy, Prudential was required under ERISA to interpret and apply the Policy according to its terms.  Having been advised by Ford that he did not have a beneficiary designation, Prudential applied the relevant Policy terms to pay out the proceeds to David’s father.  In the absence of any evidence of bad faith by Prudential, it could not be held liable under ERISA.  “Plaintiff chose not to pursue a claim for benefits under the Policy with Prudential,” wrote Boyle, “but instead entered into an agreement with Freemen where he would receive the Policy’s proceeds and then give the proceeds to Plaintiff.  In Plaintiff choosing this path, Prudential did what it was required to do under the Policy – and what Plaintiff expected them to do – it paid the Policy’s proceeds to Freemen since there was no beneficiary designee and no claim by the Decedent’s spouse or children.”  Thus, the complaint failed to state a claim against Prudential under ERISA.

Both BoA and Prudential had also sought dismissal on grounds of failure to exhaust administrative remedies.  ERISA requires that employee benefit plans have a process of handling claims and providing for appeals of claim denials.  Ford did not try to invoke these procedures, instead merely adding BoA and Prudential as defendants in his state court lawsuit against Freemen two years after the death of his partner.  Ford argued that BoA’s exhaustion argument was “misplaced because BoA has failed to show that the Policy required him to make a claim with BoA, as opposed to the plan-administrator, Prudential,” wrote Boyle.  “In its Reply, BoA does not respond to this argument or make additional exhaustion arguments . . .  the Court does not find it appropriate to dismiss Plaintiff’s claims against BoA for failure to allege exhaustion of administrative remedies at the motion-to-dismiss stage” because, among other things, exhaustion is an affirmative defense, and it would be premature to deal with it at this stage of the case.  For another, of course, courts have recognized exceptions to the exhaustion requirement where a beneficiary had a “valid reason” for failing to exhaust administrative remedies.  “Although discovery will be needed to determine the applicability of this and other potential exceptions to the exhaustion requirement,” wrote Boyle, “the Court finds that the allegations in Plaintiff’s Complaint and the unique circumstances of this case are sufficient to infer that an exception to exhausting administrative remedies may be appropriate in this case.”

Turning to Prudential, however, the court found that this was an additional reason to grant Prudential’s motion to dismiss.  “Prudential’s position as to who is entitled to the Policy’s proceeds has remained the same from the time Plaintiff called Prudential following the Decedent’s death to the present day – absent a beneficiary designee, the Policy’s proceeds would be paid out to the Decedent’s spouse, and if none, to the Decedent’s heirs.  Prudential’s current position is not that it would have refused any claim by Plaintiff, but that the time to make a claim was when it originally advised Plaintiff of the proper claim process after the Decedent’s death and prior to filing suit.”  The judge noted that Ford had not alleged that Prudential’s policy was discriminatory, or that it would have refused to pay out if he had attempted to “prove up” his common law spouse status, and “there are no allegations that Prudential was hostile or biased against Plaintiff’s attempt to collect the Policy’s proceeds.”  The bottom line — Prudential is out of the case, because it did just what a Plan administrator is supposed to do: administer the Policy according to its terms.

The court gave Ford, who is represented by counsel – Tom C. Clark of Clark, Malouf & White LLP, Dallas – thirty days to amend his Complaint to convert the dismissed state law claim into a federal claim under ERISA.  The court did not give Ford leave to replead against Prudential.   The judge explained, “The Court finds that allowing Plaintiff the opportunity to replead against Prudential would be futile because Plaintiff would in essence have to contradict many of the allegations and arguments he currently asserts against Prudential in order to state a viable [ERISA] claim.”  Of course, the case continues against Otis Freemen, giving Ford alternative theories to pursue in seeking to recover the $726, 299.18 (presumably plus interest) at stake in this case.

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United States Supreme Court Refuses to Review Transgender Bathroom Case from Boyertown, Pennsylvania

The Supreme Court announced on May 28 that it will not review a decision by the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, which had rejected a constitutional and statutory challenge by cisgender students at Boyertown (Pennsylvania) Senior High School, who were upset that the School District decided to let transgender students use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  Doe v. Boyertown Area School District & Pennsylvania Youth Congress Foundation, 897 F.3d 518 (3rd Cir. 2018), cert. denied, 2019 WL 2257330 (May 28, 2019).

The federal lawsuit stemmed from a decision in 2016 by the School District to permit transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity.  Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) and local attorneys affiliated with the Independence Law Center in Harrisburg filed suit on behalf of several cisgender students, proceeding under pseudonyms, contending that this decision violated their rights on three theories: constitutional right of bodily privacy under the 14th Amendment, creation of a “hostile environment” in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination by schools that get federal funds, and violation of the right of privacy under Pennsylvania state common law.  Upon filing their complaint, the plaintiffs asked U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith (E.D. Pa.) to issue a preliminary injunction to block the school district’s policy while the case was pending.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the ACLU’s National LGBT Rights Project joined the case, representing the Pennsylvania Youth Congress Foundation, which intervened as a co-defendant to help the School District defend its policy.

This case is part of a national campaign by ADF to preserve and defend restrictions on restroom and locker room use by transgender students, part of ADF’s overall goal – consistent with the Trump Administration’s anti-transgender policies – to deprive transgender people of any protection under federal law.  So far, ADF has lost a succession of “bathroom” cases, and the 3rd Circuit’s ruling in this case was one of its most notable defeats.  At the same time, however, the Education Department under the leadership of Trump’s appointee, Betsy De Vos, has reversed the Obama Administration’s policy and now refuses to investigate discrimination claims by transgender students under Title IX, leaving it up to individuals to file lawsuits seeking protection under the statute.

Judge Smith refused to issue the requested preliminary injunction on August 25, 2017, 276 F. Supp. 3d 324, writing an extensive decision that concluded that the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on the merits of any of their theories, and that mere exposure to transgender students was not going to impose an irreparable injury on them anyway.   Judge Smith was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013, but it was noteworthy that at his Senate confirmation vote, he received more votes from Republican Senators than Democratic Senators.

Plaintiffs appealed to the 3rd Circuit, and suffered a loss before a unanimous three judge panel, which issued its decision on June 18, 2018.  The opinion was written by Circuit Judge Theodore McKee, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton.  The other judges on the panel were Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz, who was appointed by President Obama to fill the vacancy created by Circuit Judge Marion Trump Barry, President Trump’s sister, when she took senior status; and Senior Circuit Judge Richard Nygaard, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

Judge McKee’s opinion set the stage with an extended discussion of gender identity based on the expert testimony offered by defendants in opposition to the motion for preliminary relief, including a much-cited amicus brief by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association, which stated that policies excluding transgender students from “privacy facilities” consistent with their gender identities “have detrimental effects on the physical and mental health, safety, and well-being of transgender individuals.”  Judge McKee also quoted from an amicus brief filed by National PTA and Gay-Lesbian-Straight Education Network (GLSEN), that forcing transgender students to use bathrooms or locker rooms that don’t match their gender identity causes “severe psychological distress often leading to attempted suicide.”  In other words, the starting point for the court’s discussion was that the School District’s policy was responding to a serious problem faced by transgender students.

The court noted that as part of its policy the School District had renovated its “privacy facilities” to increase the privacy of individual users, and had provided single-user restrooms open to any student so that students who did not want to share facilities with others because of their gender identity would not be forced to do so.   The District also required that students claiming to be transgender meet with counselors trained to address the issue, and go through a process of being approved to use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  “Once a transgender student was approved to use the bathroom or locker room that aligned with his or her gender identity,” wrote Judge McKee, “the student was required to use only those facilities,” although any student was allowed to use the single-user restrooms.  “The student could no longer use the facilities corresponding to that student’s birth sex.”

The plaintiffs claimed that their right to privacy was violated because the school’s policy permitted them to be viewed by members of the opposite sex while partially clothed.  The 3rd Circuit found that Judge Smith “correctly found that this would not give rise to a constitutional violation because the School District’s policy served a compelling interest – to prevent discrimination against transgender students – and was narrowly tailored to that interest.”  The court pointed out that privacy rights under the Constitution are not absolute.  Furthermore, wrote McKee, “the School District’s policy fosters an environment of inclusivity, acceptance, and tolerance,” and that, as the National Education Association’s amicus brief “convincingly explains, these values serve an important educational function for both transgender and cisgender students.”

While the court empathized with cisgender students who experienced “surprise” at finding themselves “in an intimate space with a student they understood was of the opposite biological sex” – an experience specifically evoked in the plaintiffs’ brief in support of their motion – the court said, “We cannot, however, equate the situation the appellants now face with the very drastic consequences that the transgender students must endure if the school were to ignore the latter’s needs and concerns.”  And, the court pointed out, cisgender students “who feel that they must try to limit trips to the restroom to avoid contact with transgender students can use the single-user bathrooms in the school.”  The court rejected plaintiffs’ argument that the best solution to the issue was to require transgender students to use the handful of single-user restrooms, finding that this would “significantly undermine” the District’s compelling interest in treating transgender students in a non-discriminatory manner.

The court also pointed out that the plaintiffs’ privacy arguments sought to push that doctrine far beyond anything supported by existing case law. The court rejected analogies to cases involving inappropriate strip searches and peeping toms.  “Those cases involve inappropriate conduct as well as conduct that intruded into far more intimate aspects of human affairs than here.  There is simply nothing inappropriate about transgender students using the restrooms or locker rooms that correspond to their gender identity” under the School District’s policy, insisted the court, which also found that the “encounters” described by the plaintiffs did not involve transgender students doing “anything remotely out of the ordinary” while using the “privacy facilities” at the school.

As a result of these findings, the court concluded that the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their privacy claims under Title IX, the Constitution, or Pennsylvania tort law.  Further, looking to “hostile environment sex discrimination” claims under Title IX (and the more developed hostile environment case law under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which covers employment discrimination and serves as a resource for courts interpreting Title IX), the court found that the possibility of encountering transgender students in a restroom failed to meet the high test set by the courts of “sexual harassment that is so severe, pervasive, or objectively offensive and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience that he or she is effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”  The possibility of occasionally encountering one of a handful of transgender students in a “privacy facility” fell far short of meeting that test.

Furthermore, the court found that the District’s policy was “sex-neutral” in that it applied to everybody, and asserted that plaintiffs had not “provided any authority” for the proposition that a “sex-neutral policy” would violate Title IX.  “The School District’s policy allows all students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity,” wrote McKee. “It does not discriminate based on sex, and therefore does not violate Title IX.”

The court drew support for its conclusion from the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Ash Whitaker’s lawsuit against the Kenosha, Wisconsin, school district, where the court found that excluding a transgender boy from using the boys’ restroom facilities did violate Title IX.  See Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, 858 F.3d 1034 (7th Cir. 2017). Consistent with that ruling, the Boyertown School District’s policy could be seen as mandated by its obligation under Title IX to provide equal educational access and opportunities to transgender students.  The court also noted transgender rights rulings by the 1st, 6th, 9th and 11th Circuits, concluding that anti-transgender discrimination in a variety of contexts violates federal laws forbidding sex discrimination.  There is an emerging consensus among federal courts of appeals along these lines.  The validity of this reasoning will be up for Supreme Court debate next Term when the Court reviews the 6th Circuit’s decision in favor of Aimee Stephens, the transgender employment discrimination plaintiff in the Harris Funeral Homes case, to be argued in the fall.

The plaintiff’s petition to the Supreme Court to review the Boyertown decision posed two questions to the Court: “Whether a public school has a compelling interest in authorizing students who believe themselves to be members of the opposite sex to use locker rooms and restrooms reserved exclusively for the opposite sex, and whether such a policy is narrowly tailored,” and “Whether the Boyertown policy constructively denies access to locker room and restroom facilities under Title IX ‘on the basis of sex.’”  These questions were phrased by ADF to incorporate its religiously-based beliefs seeking to discredit the reality of transgender existence, similar to attempts by the Trump Administration in its proposed regulations and policy statements.  If the Court had been tempted to grant this petition, it would likely have reworded the “Questions Presented,” as it pointedly did when it granted ADF’s petition to review the Harris Funeral Homes decision on April 22.

Although the decision not to review a court of appeals case does not constitute a ruling on the merits by the Supreme Court and does not establish a binding precedent on lower courts, it sends a signal to the lower courts, the practicing bar, and the parties.  In this case, the signal is important for school districts to hear as they try to navigate between the rulings by courts in favor of transgender student claims and the Trump Administration’s reversal of Obama Administration policy on this issue.  The question whether Title IX mandates the Boyertown School District’s access policy was not squarely before the Court in this case, and the justices may have denied review because they were already committed to consider whether federal sex discrimination laws cover gender identity discrimination in the Harris Funeral Homes case.

The Court normally provides no explanation why it grants or denies a petition for review although, interestingly, in another announcement on May 28, the Court did provide such a rare explanation in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, 2019 WL 2257160 (Sup. Ct., May 28, 2019).  In Box, the Court denied review of a decision by the 7th Circuit striking down on constitutional grounds an Indiana law that prohibits health care providers from providing abortions that are motivated solely by the sex, race or disability of the fetus, stating: “Only the Seventh Circuit has thus far addressed this kind of law.  We follow our ordinary practice of denying petitions insofar as they raise legal issues that have not been considered by additional Courts of Appeals.”  The implication for the Boyertown case is that the 3rd Circuit opinion may have been denied review because it was the only federal appeals court ruling to address the precise question before the Court.

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Federal Court Rejects Christian Agency’s Claimed Constitutional Right to Discriminate Against Same-Sex Couples Seeking to Adopt Children

U.S. District Judge Mae A. D’Agostino has rejected a Christian social welfare agency’s bid to be exempted from complying with non-discrimination regulations promulgated by the New York Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS).  Ruling on May 16 in New Hope Family Services, Inc. v. Poole, 2019 WL 2138355, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 2138355 (N.D.N.Y.), the court rejected a variety of constitutional arguments advances by the plaintiff in support of its claim of a constitutional right to discriminate against same-sex couples seeking to adopt children.

The plaintiff, New Hope Family Services, is an “authorized agency” with the authority to “place out or to board out children” and “receive children for purposes of adoption” under the New York Social Services Law and regulations adopted by the Office of Children and Family Services.  Under the law, the agency must “submit and consent to the approval, visitation, inspection and supervision” of OCFS, which must approve the agency’s certificate of incorporation.  Pastor Clinton H. Tasker founded New Hope in 1958 “as a Christian ministry to care for and find adoptive homes for children whose birth parents could not care for them,” wrote Judge D’Agostino.  Because of its religion beliefs, New Hope “will not recommend or place children with unmarried couples or same sex couples as adoptive parents,” it states in its complaint.  New Hope’s “special circumstances” policy states: “If the person inquiring to adopt is single . . . the Executive Director will talk with them to discern if they are truly single or if they are living together without benefit of marriage… because New Hope is a Christian Ministry it will not place children with those who are living together without the benefit of marriage.  If the person inquiring to adopt is in a marriage with a same sex partners . . . the Executive Director will explain that because New Hope is a Christian Ministry, we do not place children with same sex couples.”

Prior to 2010, New York’s Domestic Relations Law provided that authorized agencies could place children for adoption only with “an adult unmarried person or an adult husband and his adult wife.”  In September 2010, New York amended the law to allow placements with “an adult unmarried person, an adult married couple together, or any two unmarried adult intimate partners together.”  After New York adopted its Marriage Equality law in 2011, OCFS issued a letter on July 11, 2011, stating that the intent of its regulations “is to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in the adopting study assessment process.  In addition, OFCS cannot contemplate any case where the issue of sexual orientation would be a legitimate basis, whether in whole or in part, to deny the application of a person to be an adoptive parent.”  In 2013, the adoption regulations were amended to prohibit outright discrimination “against applicants for adoption services on the basis of race, creed, color, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, religion, or disability.”  OCFS followed this up with an “informational letter” in 2016, advising authorized agencies to formalize their non-discrimination policies consistent with the regulations.

In its complaint challenging these developments, New Hope (represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, the anti-LGBT religious litigation group) claims, according to Judge D’Agostino, that the agency promulgated these regulations “purporting to require adoption providers to place children with unmarried and same-sex couples in complete disregard for the law, the scope of OFCS’s authority, and the rights of adoption providers.”

The lawsuit stemmed from action by OFCS, contacting New Hope early in 2018 to inform the agency that “under a new policy implemented in 2018, OFCS would be conducting comprehensive on-site reviews of each private provider’s procedures,” and following up in mid-July with an email to schedule New Hope’s program review, including a list of things that had to be reviewed, including New Hope’s “policies and procedures.”  OFCS requested a copy of New Hope’s formal policies and procedures as part of this review.  Later in 2018, after reading New Hope’s procedures, OFCS Executive Director Suzanne Colligan called New Hope, noting the “special circumstances” provision, and informing new Hope that it would “have to comply” with the regulations “by placing children with unmarried couples and same-sex couples,” and that if New Hope did not comply, it would be “choosing to close.”  New Hope ultimately refused to comply after a series of email and letter exchanges with OFCS.

New Hope filed its complaint on December 6, 2018, claiming 1st and 14th amendment protection for its policies, claiming that OFCS’s interpretation of state law “targets, show hostility toward, and discriminates against New Hope because of its religious beliefs and practices” and also violates New Hope’s freedom of speech.  The complaint also alleged an equal protection violation, and claimed that the state was placing an “unconstitutional condition” by requiring New Hope to comply with the non-discrimination policy in order to remain an “authorized agency.”  The complaint sought preliminary injunctive relief against enforcement of the policy.

New Hope tried to escape the precedent of Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), which holds that there is no free exercise exemption from complying with neutral state laws of general application, by relying on a statement in Hosannah-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012), in which the Supreme Court held that the 1st Amendment protects religious institutions from government interference in their selection of ministerial personnel.  New Hope argued that “cases teach that even a genuinely ‘neutral law of general applicability’ cannot be applied when to do so would interfere in historically respected areas of religious autonomy.”  New Hope claimed that the state regulation was adopted “for the purpose of targeting faith-based adoption ministries” and thus was “not neutral or generally applicable as applied.”

Judge D’Agostino was not convinced, referring to a decision by the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia rejecting similar arguments by Catholic Social Services in that city in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 320 F. Supp. 3d 661 (E.D. Pa. 2019), which has been affirmed by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, 922 F.3d 140 (April 22, 2019).  The judge observed that the courts in the Philadelphia case had found similar requirements under a Philadelphia anti-discrimination ordinance to be “facially neutral and generally applicable” and “rationally related to a number of legitimate government objectives.”  And, she noted, “In affirming the district court, the Third Circuit rejected CSS’s claims that the application of the anti-discrimination clause is impermissible under Smith and its progeny.”  Judge D’Agostino found the 3rd Circuit’s ruling persuasive in this case.

“On its face,” wrote the judge, “18 N.Y.C.R.R. sec. 421.3(d) is generally applicable and it is plainly not the object of the regulation to interfere with New Hope’s, or any other agency’s, exercise of religion.”  She found that the requirement to comply is imposed on all authorized agencies, “regardless of any religious affiliation,” and that it is neutral.  “Nothing before the Court supports the conclusion that section 421.3(d) was drafted or enacted with the object ‘to infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation.”  The adoption of the requirement was a natural follow-up to the legislature’s passage of a law that codified “the right to adopt by unmarried adult couples and married adult couples regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.”  The purpose was to prohibit discrimination.

The court also rejected the argument that the regulations are not neutral because they allow agencies to take account of a variety of factors in evaluating proposed adoptive parents, including “the age of the child and of the adoptive parents, the cultural, ethnic, or racial background of the child and the capacity of the adoptive parent to meet the needs of the child with such background as one of a number of factors used to determine best interests.”  As the 3rd Circuit found in Fulton, there is a significant difference between a policy of outright refusal to place children with unmarried or same-sex couples and the application of an evaluative process focusing on the characteristics described in the regulations.  “Further,” wrote D’Agostino, “nothing in the record suggests that OCFS has knowingly permitted any other authorized agency to discriminate against members of a protected class.”

New Hope also argued that the enforcement of the regulation was not neutral, instead evincing hostility against religious agencies such as itself.  Rejecting this argument, the judge wrote, “The fact that New Hope’s conduct springs from sincerely held and strongly felt religious beliefs does not imply that OCFS’s decision to regulate that conduct springs from antipathy to those beliefs,” quoting key language from the 3rd Circuit: “If all comment and action on religiously motivated conduct by those enforcing neutral, generally applicable laws against discrimination is construed as ill will against religious belief itself, then Smith is a dead letter, and the nation’s civil rights laws might be as well.”

The court also rejected New Hope’s argument that the regulation violates the Free Speech clause of the 1st Amendment “insofar as it forces New Hope to change the content of its message” and to affirmatively recommend same-sex couples to be adoptive parents, in effect imposing an “unconstitutional condition” on New Hope.  The essence of the analysis is that designating New Hope an “authorized agency” for this purpose is delegating a governmental function to New Hope, and any speech in which New Hope engages to carry out that function is essentially governmental speech, not New Hope’s private speech as a religious entity.  “Therefore,” she wrote, “OCFS is permitted to ‘take legitimate and appropriate steps to ensure that its message,’ that adoption and foster care services are provided to all New Yorkers consistent with anti-discrimination policy set forth” in the regulation, “was and is ‘neither garbled nor distorted by New Hope.’”  She concludes that “OCFS is not prohibiting New Hope’s ongoing ministry in any way or compelling it to change the message it wishes to convey.  New Hope is not being forced to state that it approves of non-married or same sex couples.  Rather, the only statement being made by approving such couples as adoptive parents is that they satisfy the criteria set forth by the state, without regard to any views as to the marital status or sexual orientation of the couple.”

The court similarly dismissed New Hope’s claim that applying the regulation violated its right of expressive association, rejecting New Hope’s argument that this case is controlled by the Supreme Court’s decision in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, 530 U.S. 640 (2000), where the court found that the BSA had a 1st Amendment right to dismiss an out gay man from the position of Assistant Scoutmaster, based on the determination by 5 members of the Court that requiring the BSA to allow James Dale to serve would be a form of compelled endorsement of homosexuality.  The Court deemed the BSA an expressive association that had a right to determine its organizational message.  By contrast, found Judge D’Agostino, “New Hope has not alleged facts demonstrating a similar harm that providing adoption services to unmarried or same sex couples would cause to their organization.  New Hope is not being required to hire employees that do not share their same religious values,” she wrote.  “They are not prohibited in any way from continuing to voice their religious ideals.”  And even if the regulation worked “a significant impairment on New Hope’s association rights,” she continued, “the state’s compelling interest in prohibition the discrimination at issue here far exceeds any harm to New Hope’s expressive association.”

The court also found no merit to New Hope’s Equal Protection claim based on a spurious charge of selective enforcement, finding no indication that OCFS was allowing other, non-religious agencies to discriminate while cracking down on New Hope.  As to the “unconstitutional conditions” cause of action, the judge wrote that the court “views New Hope’s unconstitutional conditions claim as a mere repackaging of its various First Amendment claims and, therefore, the Court similarly repackages its resolution of those claims.”

Consequently, the court denied the motion for preliminary injunction, and granted OCFS’s motion to dismiss the case.  ADF will undoubtedly seek to appeal this ruling to the 2nd Circuit.

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District of Columbia Court of Appeals Rules on Same-Sex Common Law Marriage Claim

“Brian Gill and Rodney Van Nostrand were in a romantic relationship and cohabited for several years beginning in 2004,” begins Judge Phyllis Thompson’s opinion for the District of Columbia Court of Appeals in Gill v. Van Nostrand, 2019 WL 1827998, 2019 D.C. App. LEXIS 159 (April 25, 2019).  “After their romantic relationship waned, and a few months after Mr. Van Nostrand had a ceremonial wedding in Brazil to another man he had met while on a lengthy work assignment in that country, Mr. Gill filed a complaint for legal separation from Mr. Van Nostrand, alleging that the two men are parties in a common law marriage that began in 2004.”  Van Nostrand’s denial that the men were common-law married led to a trial in D.C. Superior Court, resulting in a decision by Judge Robert Okun rejecting Gill’s claim.  Gill’s appeal of that ruling is the subject of the Court of Appeals’ April 25 ruling.  The District of Columbia Court of Appeals is the equivalent of a state supreme court for the District of Columbia.  Its rulings can be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Judge Thompson’s opinion goes to considerable length to explain why the court affirmed Judge Okun’s ruling, and to set out in some detail how District of Columbia trial courts should evaluate claims that same-sex couples had formed common law marriages prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015).  Although the District of Columbia legislated to allow same-sex marriage several years prior to Obergefell, the issue of whether same-sex couples could form such marriages in the District, one of a handful of U.S. jurisdictions that still recognize same-sex marriages, depends on retroactive application of Obergefell’s holding that same-sex couples enjoy a fundamental right to marry as an aspect of liberty guaranteed by the Due Process Clause.  In the case of D.C., of course, the relevant Due Process Clause would be that in the 5th Amendment of the Bill of Rights, whereas the Due Process Clause upon which the Court relied in Obergefell was that in the 14th Amendment, binding on the states.

The D.C. Court of Appeals agreed with Judge Okun that the fundamental right identified by the Supreme Court in Obergefell did apply to the marital aspirations of same-sex couples at the time in question (2004).  The issue is how to decide whether a particular couple was in a common law marriage, when the District’s relevant case law was stated, in large part, in ways pertaining to different-sex couples whose right to marry at the time was legally recognized, as such a right was not then recognized for same-sex couples.  At an early stage in this case, Judge Okun refused Van Nostrand’s motion to dismiss the case, stating “that a party in a same-sex relationship must be given the opportunity to prove a common law marriage, even at a time when same-sex marriage was not legal.”  This led to the trial, in which Van Nostrand testified that he never considered himself to be married to Mr. Gill, and Mr. Gill testified about an exchange of rings, a pledge of monogamy, and his belief that they considered themselves effectively married, if not legally so.

Under District of Columbia precedents, “the elements of common law marriage in this jurisdiction are cohabitation as husband and wife, following an express mutual agreement, which must be in word of the present tense.”  Quoting Coleman v. United States, 948 A.2d 534 (D.C. Ct. App. 2008).  What that means is the people can’t just “drift” into a common law marriage in D.C.  There must be a mutual express agreement, and it can’t just be an agreement that sometime in the future the couple will get married; it must be a present statement of agreeing to live as a married couple, albeit without the formalities of a marriage license and ceremony by a governmentally authorized officiant.  Normally a preponderance of the evidence standard would apply, but depending on the circumstances the court might apply a “clear and convincing evidence” standard, which the court found applicable in this case, where Gill is trying to prove a common law marriage with a man who is legally married to another man.  (The court noted that the clear and convincing evidence standard has been used by D.C. courts in the past when somebody is trying to prove that they have a common law marriage with somebody who is legally married to somebody else.)

“We shall assume arguendo that serious constitutional issues would arise if the trial court’s analysis of common-law marriage operated to the peculiar disadvantage of Mr. Gill and Mr. Van Nostrand as a same-sex-couple, i.e., required them to meet expectations that they as a same-sex couple could meet only with more difficulty than opposite-sex couples would encounter,” wrote Judge Thompson.   “Such an approach is arguably warranted in order to accord same-sex couples who have chosen to share their lives in a union comparable to traditional marriage ‘the same respect and dignity accorded a union traditionally designated as marriage,” quoting Strauss v. Horton, 46 Cal. 4th 364 (Cal. 2009), a decision in which the California Supreme Court ruled that marriages of same-sex couples who were married in California prior to the passage of Proposition 8 would have exactly the same status as all legally-contracted marriages in that state.

The trial court focused on six factors in its analysis in concluding that Gill and Nostrand did not have a common law marriage.

First was the failure of either man, but particularly Mr. Gill, to remember the date on which Gill claimed they exchanged rings that they agreed to wear for the duration of their relationship.  Gill testified that he “decided to surprise Mr. Van Nostrand by purchasing two rings and presenting them to Mr. Van Nostrand along with M& M candies inscribed with “Will you marry me?”  Gill testified that he got down on one knew and proposed to Mr. Van Nostrand, who said yes and allowed Gill to slip one of the rings on his finger.  Van Nostrand denied various particulars of this testimony, and there was no testimonial agreement about the date on which this purportedly occurred. The court found Gill’s testimony, which goes to the crucial question of whether there was an express agreement to be married, as “exceptionally vague,” although, by contrast, Gill remembered precisely both their first date and the first time they had sex with each other.  “The court reasoned that ‘the date on which parties agree to be married surely would be at least as memorable [as], if not more memorable . . . than the date on which’ the parties first had sexual relations ‘or first had a “real date” at a restaurant,’” wrote Thompson.  Gill criticized the judge’s “overreliance” on this factor, but the appeals court did not consider this “unfairly prejudicial” or improperly expecting the parties “to meet expectations of traditional marriage that they, as a same-sex couple, could meet only with difficulty.”  Since the date in question is the date when Gill claims to have proposed marriage, proffered a ring, and received an affirmative response from Von Nostrand, the court found failure to remember the date was not an “unreasonable factor to consider,” taking into account that it was not the only or dispositive factor, merely one of several.

Secondly, the trial court found that neither of the men “told their friends or family about the alleged marriage (or perhaps more correctly, the alleged ‘entry into a commitment comparable to marriage’) and the couple did not commemorate it with a ceremony or celebrate it by going on a honeymoon.”  The court did find that at that time both parties’ families had “harsh anti-gay views” which could explain why there was no contemporaneous communication to them about this topic, and the court acknowledged that “same-sex couples, prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage, might have been less likely to have a public ceremony or honeymoon,” but, pointed out Thompson, the question was “how these parties and their friends in the gay community marked or signified important events in their romantic lives,” and evidence was lacking as to that.  Traditionally, “holding out” as married to one’s relevant community is an important signifier of common law marriage, and there was nothing stopping a same-sex couple from taking a honeymoon trip to celebrate their new relationship.  Gill attempted to show that a European trip the men took in 2005 was their “honeymoon,” but Van Nostrand testified to the contrary.

Furthermore, there was evidence that Van Nostrand was partial to “celebrating events in a flamboyant manner,” as shown by his marriage to Weller da Silva, the Brazilian man whom he legally married in April 2014.  Related Thompson, “Mr. Van Nostrand delivered the proposal while the pair were in a hot-air balloon over the Serengeti, created an album commemorating the proposal, told family members and friends, med Mr. da Silva’s family, and, after the two were married, went on a honeymoon trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.”  (Sounds fab!!)  The trial court credited Van Nostrand’s testimony that “he would not have entered into a marriage with [Gill] without commemorating such an event with … pomp and circumstance” and the evidence showed that Van Nostrand had the financial ability to sustain such activities, as shown by the “shared history of foreign travel” of the two men during their relationship.

The third factor was that the parties “never inscribed their rings,” a step that Van Nostrand credibly testified they would have done had they considered themselves married.  The court also noted that when marriage became available in Massachusetts, Van Nostrand asked Gill whether he wanted to go there to get married and Gill said no.  He also testified that he asked Gill about having their rings inscribed, but Gill declined, and also declined to enter into a registered domestic partnership, which became available in D.C.  Furthermore, D.C. enacted marriage equality in 2010, but the men did not take the step of formalizing their relationship as a marriage then.  Gill criticized the trial court’s reliance on this factor, but the court found that Van Nostrand credibly testified that these were “the steps he would have taken to symbolize and validate that the parties’ relationship had advanced to a mutual commitment comparable to marriage.”  Here, the court referred to a ruling last year by the Colorado Court of Appeals, Hogsett v. Neale, 2018 WL 6564880, which placed some weight on the failure of a lesbian couple to go out of state to get married as a factor in determining that they did not have a common law marriage under Colorado law.

The fourth factor was that “the parties maintained largely separate finances.”  The house in which they lived together from 2005 was only in Van Nostrand’s name, they had no joint bank accounts or credit card accounts, and even though they discussed creating wills, powers of attorney, and so forth, only Van Nostrand made and executed such documents.  The trial court observed that “although [Gill] was supposed to draft documents giving [Van Nostrand] these same benefits and responsibilities, he failed to do so.”  By contrast, shortly after Van Nostrand married da Silva, they established joint bank accounts and executed wills, powers of attorney and the like.  (A docket search shows that sometime after his marriage to da Silva, Van Nostrand sought to evict Gill from the D.C. home, resulting in litigation in which Gill sought, without success, injunctive relief against the eviction, before a different D.C. trial judge. There is no published opinion, and Judge Okun’s decision in this case is apparently not published, either.)

The fifth factor was Gill’s failure to object or to claim he was in a common law marriage with Van Nostrand when he was informed that Van Nostrand planned to marry da Silva in Brazil.  Gill’s response to this news was not to state that they needed to get divorced first in order for that marriage to take place.  He raised the issue “only after realizing that this would affect” his beneficiary status in terms of Van Nostrand’s employee benefits.  As the court pointedly notes, he seemed to have sprung into action when he was removed from coverage under Van Nostrand’s employment-related health insurance.  He went to an attorney and apparently first learned about the possibility of claiming a common law marriage at that point.  “Mr. Gill asserts that he reacted as he did because he was not aware that the parties’ relationship gave him legally enforceable rights vis-à-vis Mr. Van Nostrand,” observed the court.  The court of appeals found this to be “understandable” as the parties are not lawyers, and the trial court did not deem this as a determinative factor in the analysis.  However, wrote Thompson, “we think the trial court exercised reasonable skepticism in light of Mr. Gill’s financial incentive to claim that the parties had a common-law marriage.  Courts have long ‘regarded common-law marriage as a fruitful source of fraud and perjury,’” quoting In re Estate of Danza, 188 App. Div. 2d 530, 591 N.Y.S. 2d 197 (1992).

Finally, the sixth factor concerns the growing body of court decisions about retroactive common law marriage claims, and particularly a case in which a Pennsylvania trial court did find a common law marriage, In re Estate of Carter, 159 A.3d 970 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2017).  Carter presented ideal facts to find a same-sex common law marriage.  There was a marriage proposal and a diamond ring that Mr. Hunter gave Mr. Carter on Christmas Day 1996, a day easy to remember and prove. Mr. Carter then gave Hunter an engraved diamond ring on February 18, 1997, with the date inscribed, and the men faithfully observed that date as their anniversary for 16 years until Carter’s death.  They had joint banking and investment accounts, owned their home together with a joint mortgage, had mutual wills and powers of attorney, and referred to each other as spouses.  While Judge Okun disclaimed requiring that all these factors be satisfied in order to find a common law marriage for a same-sex couple formed prior to the legalization of same-sex marriages, he reasoned that Gill’s “failure to prove any of these factors substantially undercuts his effort to prove the existence of a common law marriage.”  In this case, Judge Okun found that the men had at best “an agreement to get married at some point in the future.” Wrote Thompson, “We cannot say that the trial court’s reliance on Carter as persuasive authority and its resultant analysis were legally or factually erroneous.”

In conclusion, wrote Thompson, “For all the foregoing reasons, we are satisfied that the evidence did not compel the trial court to conclude that the parties had an express mutual agreement to be permanent partners with the same degree of commitment as the spouses in a ceremonial marriage.  The evidence permitted the court to conclude, as it did, that the parties never expressly agreed to be married, in the present tense.”  And that decides the case consistent with D.C. case law.

Gill is represented by Aaron Marr Page and Christopher J. Gowen.  Jack Maginnis represents Van Nostrand.  As noted, this ruling could be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  Federal question jurisdiction is not required for an appeal from the D.C. local courts on questions of D.C. common law, but if it were, this case arguably presents an underlying constitutional question concerning the jurisdiction’s obligation to recognize the fundamental rights of same-sex couples to enter into common law marriages, and the question whether the trial court’s analysis did not adequately respect that right could still be argued on appeal.  However, Judge Thompson took great lengths to reiterate the D.C. Court of Appeals’ view that the court had to take account of contemporary circumstances pre-Obergefell in avoiding unfairly prejudicing the question by imposing unreasonable expectations on how same-sex couples intended to form a common law marriage would have acted in 2004, and that the trial court had done that adequately in this case.

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Supreme Court to Decide Whether Discrimination Because of Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity Violates Title VII’s Ban on Discrimination Because of Sex

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on April 22 that it will consider appeals next term in three cases presenting the question whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination because of an individual’s sex, covers claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Because federal courts tend to follow Title VII precedents when interpreting other federal sex discrimination statutes, such as the Fair Housing Act and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a ruling in these cases could have wider significance than just employment discrimination claims.

The first Petition for certiorari was filed on behalf of Gerald Lynn Bostock, a gay man who claimed he was fired by the Clayton County, Georgia, Juvenile Court System, for which he worked as Child Welfare Services Coordinator, because of his sexual orientation.  Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, No. 17-1618 (filed May 25, 2018).  The trial court dismissed his claim, and the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, 723 Fed. Appx. 964 (11th Cir., May 10, 2018), petition for en banc review denied, 894 F.3d 1335 (11th Cir., July 18, 2018), reiterating an old circuit precedent from 1979 that Title VII does not forbid discrimination against homosexuals.

The second Petition was filed by Altitude Express, a now-defunct sky-diving company that discharged Donald Zarda, a gay man, who claimed the discharge was at least in part due to his sexual orientation.  Altitude Express v. Zarda, No. 17-1623 (filed May 29, 2018).  The trial court, applying 2nd Circuit precedents, rejected his Title VII claim, and a jury ruled against him on his New York State Human Rights Law claim.  He appealed to the New York-based 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, which ultimately ruled en banc that the trial judge should not have dismissed the Title VII claim, because that law applies to sexual orientation discrimination.  Zarda v. Altitude Express, 883 F.3d 100 (2nd Cir., Feb. 26, 2018). This overruled numerous earlier 2nd Circuit decisions.

The third petition was filed by R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, three establishments located in Detroit and its suburbs, which discharged a funeral director, William Anthony Beasley Stephens, when Stephens informed the proprietor, Thomas Rost, about her planned transition.   R.G. & G.R. Funeral Homes v EEOC, No. 18-107 (filed July 20, 2018).  Rost stated religious objections to gender transition, claiming protection from liability under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued the funeral home under Title VII.  Stephens, who changed her name to Aimee as part of her transition, intervened as a co-plaintiff in the case.  The trial judge found that Title VII had been violated, but that RFRA protected Harris Funeral Homes from liability.  The Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s holding that the funeral home violated Title VII, but reversed the RFRA ruling, finding that complying with Title VII would not substantially burden the funeral home’s free exercise of religion.  EEOC v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, 884 F.3d 560 (6th Cir., March 7, 2018).  The 6th Circuit’s ruling reaffirmed its 2004 precedent in Smith v. City of Salem, 378 F.3d 566, using a gender stereotyping theory, but also pushed forward to hold directly that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination under Title VII.

In all three cases, the Court has agreed to consider whether Title VII’s ban on discrimination “because of sex” is limited to discrimination against a person because the person is a man or a woman, or whether, as the EEOC has ruled in several federal employment disputes, it extends to sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination claims.

The question whether the Court would consider these cases has been lingering on its docket almost a year, as the petitions in the Bostock and Zarda cases were filed within days of each other last May, and the funeral home’s petition was filed in July.  The Court originally listed the Bostock and Zarda petitions for consideration during its pre-Term “long conference” at the end of September, but then took them off the conference list at the urging of Alliance Defending Freedom, representing the funeral home, which suggested that the Court should wait until briefing on the funeral home was completed and then take up all three cases together.

The Court returned the petitions to its conference list in December, and the cases were listed continuously since the beginning of this year, sparking speculation about why the Court was delaying, including the possibility that it wanted to put off consideration of this package of controversial cases until its next term, beginning in October 2019.  That makes it likely that the cases will not be argued until next winter, with decisions emerging during the heat of the presidential election campaign next spring, as late as the end of June.

Title VII was adopted as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and went into effect in July 1965.  “Sex” was added as a forbidden ground of discrimination in employment in a floor amendment shortly before House passage of the bill.  The EEOC, originally charged with receiving and investigating employment discrimination charges and attempting to conciliate between the parties, quickly determined that it had no jurisdiction over complaints charging sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, and federal courts uniformly agreed with the EEOC.

The courts’ attitude began to change after the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that evidence of sex stereotyping by employers could support a sex discrimination charge under Title VII in the case of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (plurality opinion by Justice William J. Brennan), and in 1998 in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, 523 U.S. 75 (opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia), the Court suggested that Title VII could apply to a “same-sex harassment” case.   Justice Scalia stated that Title VII’s application was not limited to the concerns of the legislators who voted for it, but would extend to “comparable evils.”

These two rulings were part of a series of cases in which the Supreme Court took an increasingly flexible approach to interpreting discrimination “because of sex,” which in turn led lower federal courts earlier in this century to reconsider their earlier rulings in LGBT discrimination cases.  Federal appeals court rulings finding protection for transgender plaintiffs relied on Price Waterhouse’s sex stereotyping analysis, eventually leading the EEOC to rule in 2012 that a transgender applicant for a federal job, Mia Macy, could bring a Title VII claim against the federal employer.  Macy v. Holder, 2012 WL 1435995. In 2015, the EEOC extended that analysis to a claim brought by a gay air traffic controller, David Baldwin, against the U.S. Transportation Department, Baldwin v. Foxx, 2015 WL 4397641, and the EEOC has followed up these rulings by filing discrimination claims in federal court on behalf of LGBT plaintiffs and appearing as amicus curiae in such cases as Zarda v. Altitude Express.

In the Harris Funeral Homes case, the 6th Circuit became the first federal appeals court to go beyond the sex stereotype theory for gender identity discrimination claims, agreeing with the EEOC that discrimination because of gender identity is always discrimination because of sex, as it involves the employer taking account of the sex of the individual in making a personnel decision.  The EEOC’s argument along the same lines for sexual orientation discrimination was adopted by the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339 (7th Cir. en banc), a case that the losing employer did not appeal to the Supreme Court.  In 2018, the 2nd Circuit endorsed the EEOC’s view in the Zarda case.

During the oral argument of Zarda in the 2nd Circuit, the judges expressed some amusement and confusion when an attorney for the EEOC argued in support of Zarda’s claim, and an attorney for the Justice Department argued in opposition.  When the case was argued in September 2017, the EEOC still had a majority of commissioners appointed by President Obama who continued to support the Baldwin decision, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions took the position on behalf of the Justice Department that federal sex discrimination laws do not apply to sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination claims.

Due to the Trump Administration’s failure to fill vacancies on the EEOC, the Commission currently lacks a quorum and cannot decide new cases.  Thus, the Solicitor General’s response for the government to Harris Funeral Home’s petition for review did not really present the position of the Commission, although the Solicitor General urged the Court to take up the sexual orientation cases and defer deciding the gender identity case.  Perhaps this was a strategic recognition that unless the Court was going to back away from or narrow the Price Waterhouse ruling on sex stereotyping, it was more likely to uphold the 6th Circuit’s gender identity ruling than the 2nd Circuit’s sexual orientation ruling in Zarda, since the role of sex stereotyping in a gender identity case seems more intuitively obvious to federal judges, at least as reflected in many district and appeals court decisions in recent years.

The Court sometimes tips its hand a bit when granting certiorari by reframing the questions posed by the Petitioner.  It did not do this regarding sexual orientation, merely stating that it would consolidate the two cases and allot one hour for oral argument.  Further instructions will undoubtedly come from the Court about how many attorneys will be allotted argument time, and whether the Solicitor General or the EEOC will argue on the sexual orientation issue as amicus curiae.

The Court was more informative as to Harris Funeral Homes, slightly rephrasing the question presented in the Petition.  The Court said that the Petition “is granted limited to the following question: Whether Title VII prohibits discrimination against transgender people based on (1) their status as transgender or (2) sex stereotyping under Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins.”  One wonders why the Supreme Court used the phrase “status as transgender” rather than “gender identity” in describing the first part of the question, since “gender identity” fits more neatly into the terminology of Title VII than a reference to “status.”

None of the members of the Court have addressed the questions presented in these three cases during their judicial careers up to this point, so venturing predictions about how these cases will be decided is difficult lacking pertinent information.  The four most recent appointees to the Court with substantial federal judicial careers prior to their Supreme Court appointment – Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh – have never written a published opinion on sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination, and neither did Chief Justice John Roberts during his brief service on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.  However, it seems predictable that the justices most committed to construing civil rights laws narrowly in the context of the time when they were adopted will be skeptical about the argument that the 1964 statute can be interpreted to extend to sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination.

The counsel of record for Bostock is Brian J. Sutherland of Buckley Beal LLP, Atlanta.  Clayton County, Georgia, retained Jack R. Hancock of Freeman Mathis & Gary LLP, of Forest Park, Georgia, to submit its response to the Bostock Petition.  Counsel of record for Altitude Express is Saul D. Zabell of Bohemia, New York.  The brief in opposition was filed on behalf of the Zarda Estate by Gregory Antollino of New York City.  Zabell and Antollino were both trial counsel in the case and have pursued it through the appellate process.  Several attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom, the Scottsdale, Arizona, based conservative religious liberty litigation group, represent Harris Funeral Home, and Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco’s office represents the EEOC.   John A. Knight of the ACLU Foundation, Chicago, is counsel of record for Aimee Stephens.  It is not unusual when the Supreme Court grants review for private parties to seek out experienced Supreme Court advocates to present their arguments to the Court, so some of these attorneys listed on the Petitions and other Briefs will likely not be appearing before the Court when the cases are argued next winter.

 

 

 

 

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Supreme Court Rejects Appeals from Gay Death Row Inmate and Conversion Therapy Practitioners

The U.S. Supreme Court announced on April 15 that it will not hear an appeal by gay death row inmate Charles Rhines, who contends that the jury that chose death over life in prison without parole in his murder trial in 1993 was tainted by homophobic statements by some of the jurors during deliberations.  Rhines v. Young, No. 18-8029 (filed Feb. 15, 2019).  At the same time, the Court announced that it will not take up the question whether the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Philadelphia, should reconsider its 2014 decision to reject a constitutional challenge to a New Jersey law prohibiting licensed health care providers from providing “conversion therapy” to minors.  King v. Murphy, No. 18-1073 (filed Feb. 11, 2019). Both of these petitions for review were considered long shots at best.

The South Dakota Attorney General’s Office filed a short reply to Rhines’ petition, insisting that its own investigation of the jury – sparked by his contentions – had failed to substantiate his claim that the jurors sentenced him to death because he is gay.   There is no doubt that a juror joked that Rhines, as a gay man, would enjoy being locked up for life in an all-male environment where he would be able to mingle with other prisoners and enjoy sexual contacts, as even interviews conducted by the AG’s office confirmed this.  Interviews of jurors by Rhines’ lawyers, conducted long after the trial, produced a range of recollections, ranging from a recollection that the juror in question was challenged for his remarks and apologized, to a recollection that there was considerable discussion of Rhines’ sexuality, which had been a topic of testimony during the penalty phase of the trial, when a family member testified that Rhines had struggled with his sexuality.

The jury sent a note to the trial judge during penalty deliberations, posing a series of questions about the conditions under which Rhines would be serving if he were sentenced to life without parole. Some of the questions inspired concerns by Rhines’ defense attorney that the jurors were inappropriately taking his sexual orientation into account in making their decision. The trial judge refused to respond to the questions, instructing the jurors to rely on the instructions he had previously given them.

Rhines has spent a quarter-century on death row since his conviction and sentencing, seeking to get courts to set aside the death sentence based on a variety of theories, but his hopes were spurred by a Supreme Court decision last year, holding that a court could breach the usual confidentiality of jury deliberations when there was evidence of inappropriate race discrimination by a jury.  Had the Court taken Rhines’ case, it would have provided an opportunity to determine whether juror homophobia should receive the same constitutional evaluation as jury racism.

Unfortunately, the federal courts in South Dakota and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals found that this issue was not raised early enough in the appellate process, and that Rhines’ attempt to bring a fuller account of the juror interviews before the courts came too late.  As a result, no court has ever considered Rhines’ evidence of jury homophobia on the merits.  The Supreme Court had turned down a prior attempt by Rhines last year, while a prior appeal was pending before the 8th Circuit.  After the 8th Circuit rejected his latest attempt, Rhines filed a new petition, but in vain.

Publicity to his plight resulted in the submission of three briefs in support of his petition, by a Law Professors group, the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union.  Although the Court granted the motions to receive those briefs, it rejected Rhines’ petition without comment.

The conversion therapy petition posed a novel question to the Court.  Should it order a federal appeals court to reopen a decision that had received unfavorable mention in a recent Supreme Court opinion in an unrelated case, when the Supreme Court itself had years ago rejected a petition to review the appeals court decision?

Conversion therapy practitioners filed a constitutional challenge to the New Jersey law banning conversion therapy, claiming it violated their constitutional free speech rights.  The federal district court and the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals both rejected their argument.  King v. Governor of New Jersey, 767 F. 3d 216 (3rd Cir. 2014), cert. denied, 135 S. Ct. 2048 (2015).  The speech involved was “professional speech,” said the court of appeals, and thus entitled to less protection than political or literary speech.  The 3rd Circuit’s ruling reached the same result as a ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit in rejecting an earlier challenge to California’s conversion therapy ban, but the 9th Circuit had opined that the regulation of therapy was not subject to 1st Amendment challenge because it was a regulation of health care practice, not specifically aimed at speech as such.  These distinctions did not affect the outcome of the two cases.  Either way, the courts found that the state’s legitimate concerns about protecting minors from a practiced that he been condemned by leading professional associations outweighed the practitioners’ free speech claims.

However, in a new case arising from California last year, Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361 (June 26, 2018), the Supreme Court found fault with a state law that required licensed clinics providing services to pregnant women to advise them of the availability of abortion services from the state.  The Supreme Court found this to be “compelled speech” subject to the most demanding level of judicial review, “strict scrutiny.”  The state’s argument defending this requirement relied on the conversion therapy cases, arguing that the speech in question was “professional speech” subject to a less demanding level of judicial review.  Writing for the Court, Justice Clarence Thomas rejected that argument, and he specifically mentioned the 3rd Circuit’s ruling with disfavor.

Even though the Supreme Court had refused a petition to review the 3rd Circuit’s ruling in 2015, the conversion therapy practitioners asked the 3rd Circuit to reconsider its ruling in light of the Supreme Court’s negative comments about the earlier decision.  The 3rd Circuit refused, and this petition for Supreme Court review was filed on February 11.  Counsel for the respondents – New Jersey’s Attorney General and Garden State Equality, which had intervened as a co-defendant in the original case – thought so little of the petitioners’ chances that they did not file briefs in opposition.  Their confidence was justified.  It was never likely that the Supreme Court would order a circuit court to reopen a case from years ago that had already been denied direct review by the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s April 15 announcements, deriving from its April 12 conference, failed to include any mention of five other pending cases related to LGBT rights that are being closely watched.  The Court will hold another conference to discuss pending petitions on April 18 (a day earlier than normal because of the Good Friday holiday on April 19), so there may be word on April 22 whether the Court will address sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination issues next term, as well as another “gay wedding cake” case.

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Impatient Christians File Suit Against EEOC’s Interpretation of Title VII and Seek Exemption from Recognizing Same-Sex Marriages

The U.S. Pastor Council (on behalf of itself and others similarly situated), and Braidwood Management, Inc., a business claiming to have religious objections concerning the employment of LGBTQ people (on behalf of itself and others similarly situated), have jointly filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas (Fort Worth Division), seeking a declaratory judgment that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s interpretation of Title VII to protect LGBTQ people from employment discrimination violates the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the First Amendment, and they seek to enjoin the federal government from enforcing these policies against any employer who objects to homosexual or transgender behavior on religious grounds.  U.S. Pastor Council & Braidwood Management Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Case No. 4:18-cv-00824-O (U.S. Dist. Ct., N.D. Texas, filed March 29, 2019).  They seek class certification and nation-wide injunctive relief.  Other named defendants include EEOC Chair Victoria A. Lipnic and Commissioner Charlotte A. Burrows, Attorney General William P. Barr, and the United States of America.  (Lipnic and Burrows are the only currently serving EEOC commissioners, as Trump’s nominees to fill three vacancies were not confirmed in the last session of the Senate, and the Commission as a body lacks a quorum to act at present.)

The headline’s reference to “impatient Christians” points to the Supreme Court’s unexplained delay in deciding whether to grant writs of certiorari in three pending cases that pose the question whether Title VII can be interpreted, as it has been by the EEOC and some circuit courts of appeals, to prohibit employment discrimination because of an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.  If the Supreme Court finally takes these cases and decides them during its October 2019 Term, this lawsuit could be at least partially mooted.  But the complaint ranges more broadly, tempting the court (and ultimately the Supreme Court) to reconsider two of its constitutional precedents that are not beloved by the Court’s current conservative majority: Employment Division v. Smith and Obergefell v. Hodges.

The docket number of the case indicates that it has been assigned to District Judge Reed O’Connor, which means that it is highly predictable that the plaintiffs will get much of the relief they are seeking from the district court.  In earlier lawsuits, Judge O’Connor issued nationwide injunctions against the federal government’s enforcement of Obamacare and Title IX in gender identity cases, disagreeing that the term “discrimination because of sex” could be construed to extend to gender identity.  See Franciscan Alliance v. Burwell, 227 F.Supp.3d 660 (N.D. Tex. Dec. 31, 2016) (Obamacare); Texas v. United States, 201 F. Supp. 3d 810 (N.D. Tex. 2016) (Title IX).  Since the current political appointees leading the Justice Department probably agree with the plaintiff’s position on all or most of the claims raised in this complaint, one reasonably suspects that any serious defense can only be mounted by Intervenors, and the government would only appeal pro-plaintiff rulings by Judge O’Connor in order to get a rubber stamp approval from the 5th Circuit on the way to the Supreme Court. Trump has worked hard to cement a conservative majority on the 5th Circuit, having quickly filled five of the vacancies preserved for him by the Senate’s refusal to confirm Obama nominees to the circuit courts.  A new vacancy waits to be filled, and more elderly Republican appointees on the circuit (two active Reagan appointees who have been there more than thirty years) are likely to retire soon enough.

The complaint’s first count argues that the government has no compelling reason to enforce a prohibition against discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity against employers with religious objections, and thus that the EEOC as a federal agency should be found to be precluded from doing so under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  The second count argues that because Title VII exempts religious employers from its ban on religious discrimination, it is thereby not a law of “general applicability,” so Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), is “inapplicable” to the question whether imposing a non-discrimination obligation on employers who are subject to the statute (those with 15 or more employees) violates their constitutional Free Exercise rights under the 1st Amendment.  The complaint observes that the ministerial exemption to Title VII that the Supreme Court has found for religious institutions does not extend to businesses, and further does not extend to the non-ministerial employees of religious organizations, thus imposing a burden on both kinds of employers who are subject to Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination.  Furthermore, they argue that if the court disagrees with their characterization of Title VII and finds that Employment Division v. Smith would apply in their Free Exercise claim, that decision should be overruled (which, of course, the district court can’t do, but this lawsuit is obviously not intended to stop at the district court).  Justice Neil Gorsuch implied in his concurring opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop last June that the Supreme Court should reconsider this precedent.

In terms of the practical impact of the EEOC’s position, the complaint says in its third count that Braidwood Management’s benefits administrator has amended its employee benefits plans to recognize same-sex marriages, complying with guidance on the EEOC’s website, and Braidwood wants to instruct the administrator to return to a traditional marriage definition, consistent with the employer’s religious beliefs.  Thus, part of the declaratory judgment plaintiffs seek would proclaim that employers with religious beliefs against same-sex marriage should be allowed to refuse to recognize them for employee benefits purposes.  In several counts, the complaint tempts the court to declare as illegitimate the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision, and to excuse religious organizations and businesses from having to recognize same-sex marriages, except possibly in states where same-sex marriage became available through state legislation, unlike Texas, where it exists by compulsion of the federal courts (and certainly against the wishes of the state government).

In terms of standing issues, Braidwood points out that the EEOC has actively enforced its interpretation of Title VII by bringing enforcement actions and filing amicus briefs in support of LGBTQ plaintiffs against employers with religious objections, most prominently in the Harris Funeral Home case, in which the EEOC sued a business that had discharged a transgender employee because of the employer’s religious objections.  The funeral home prevailed in the district court on a RFRA defense, the trial judge finding that in the absence of RFRA the funeral home would have been found in violation of Title VII.  However, the 6th Circuit reversed in part, rejecting the district court’s RFRA analysis and finding a Title VII violation.  The funeral home’s petition for certiorari was filed in the Supreme Court last July, but that Court had made no announcement regarding a grant or denial at the time this complaint was filed on March 29 – impatient Christians, again.

The fourth count claims that the EEOC’s requirement that employers post a notice to employees announcing their protection under Title VII is unconstitutionally compelled speech.  “Employees who read this sign and see that Braidwood is categorically forbidden to engage in ‘sex’ discrimination will assume (incorrectly) that Braidwood is legally required to recognize same-sex marriage, extend spousal employment benefits to same-sex couples, and allow its employees into restrooms reserved for the opposite biological sex,” says the complaint, indicating that Braidwood’s proprietor “is not willing to have Braidwood propagate this message without sufficient clarification.”

The sixth count summons the Administrative Procedure Act to attack the EEOC’s issuance of guidance on its website concerning its interpretation of Title VII, claiming that this constitutes a “rule” that is subject to judicial review under that statute.  The complaint asks the court to “hold unlawful and set aside” the EEOC’s regulatory guidance, invoking Section 706 of the APA.  Braidwood Management also claims to speak in this count as representative of all businesses in the U.S. that “object to the constitutional reasoning in Obergefell, excluding employers in states where same-sex marriage was legalized through legislation.”

The complaint lists as plaintiffs’ counsel Charles W. Fillmore and H. Dustin Fillmore of Fort Worth (local counsel in the district court) and Jonathan F. Mitchell of Austin.  The heavy gun here is Mitchell, a former Scalia clerk and Texas Solicitor General who has been nominated by President Trump to be Chairman of the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS).  It seems ironic that Trump’s nominee is suing the federal government: the Justice Department and its head (in his official capacity) and the EEOC and its commissioners (in their official capacity), but despite naming the United States as a defendant, plaintiffs are not suing the president by name (in his official capacity, of course).

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5th Circuit Panel Rules Denial of Gender Confirmation Surgery for Transgender Inmate Does Not Violate 8th Amendment

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled by a vote of 2-1 on March 29 that the state of Texas did not violate the 8th Amendment right against cruel or unusual punishment by denying gender confirmation surgery to transgender inmate Vanessa Lynn Gibson.  Gibson v. Collier, 2019 WL 1417271, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 9397.  The dissent argued that the substantive legal question was not properly before the court.  The majority took the position that a state may categorically refuse to provide gender confirmation surgery (or, as they labelled it, “sex reassignment surgery”) as a treatment for gender dysphoria, regardless of the needs of the individual inmate.

The opinion for the panel was written by James C. Ho, who was nominated by President Donald Trump to fill one of the long-standing vacancies on the 5th Circuit that was preserved by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s determined effort to block President Obama from filling circuit court vacancies that opened up during his second term.  The retirement of an active judge created this vacancy in 2013.  Upon confirmation by the Senate, James Ho joined the court on January 4, 2018.  He was previously Solicitor General of Texas, and active in the Federalist Society.  Joining Ho’s opinion was Circuit Judge Jerry Edwin Smith, who was appointed to the court by President Ronald Reagan.  The dissenter was Senior Circuit Judge Rhesa Hawkins Barksdale, who was appointed by President George H. W. Bush.  (President Trump has appointed five out of the sixteen current active judges on the circuit court, among whom two were appointed by President Bill Clinton and three by President Barack Obama.  There is on vacancy pending on the 5th Circuit.)

Judge Ho’s opinion rests on two simple propositions.  Under the 8th Amendment’s text and case law concerning the rights of inmates to medical treatment, denying an inmate a treatment that is controversial within the medical profession and which has rarely if ever been provided to inmates cannot be held to violate the Amendment.  For one thing, he argued, denying sex reassignment surgery is not rare.  Indeed, it is a matter of course, since by his account only once in the nation’s history has any state prison system provided sex reassignment surgery to an inmate, when California recently settled a lawsuit by agreeing to provide sex reassignment surgery to the plaintiff.  Thus, denying such a procedure is not “rare,” and the 8th Amendment only prohibits punishments that are cruel and unusual.  On the other point, he wrote, the case law supports the proposition that the state only violates the 8th Amendment if it exhibits deliberate indifference to a serious medical condition, a demanding test that requires that the treatment requested by the inmate be one as to which there is widespread agreement among health care providers about its necessity.  Thus, if there is significant disagreement among medical authorities about whether a particular treatment is necessary, it doesn’t violate the Constitution for the state to refuse to provide it.

The opinion sets out only the bare bones of factual allegations by plaintiff Scott Lynn Gibson (a/k/a Vanessa Lynn Gibson).  The court uses male pronouns to refer to Gibson, claiming that Gibson did not object, although the litigation papers Gibson prepared while pro se use feminine pronouns. Gibson is an inmate at the Gatesville facility of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).  Gibson was incarcerated on conviction of two counts of aggravated robbery, and committed additional crimes in prison of aggravated assault, possession of a deadly weapon, and murder.  Upon further conviction, Gibson is sentenced to serve through May 2013, eligible for consideration for parole in April 2021.  Identified male at birth, Gibson has identified and lived as female since age 15, but was not diagnosed as having gender dysphoria at the time of incarceration.

The court accepts that Gibson has gender dysphoria as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) published by the American Psychiatric Association, is depressed, and has attempted self-castration and suicide, although according to the record is not presently considered suicidal (although learning of this decision may well affect that).  It was not until after a suicide attempt that Gibson obtained a formal diagnosis.  Gibson has been receiving counseling and hormone therapy, but insists that surgery is necessary to ameliorate her condition. Despite living as a woman, Gibson is incarcerated per the state’s policy in a men’s prison. The state’s formal policy provides that transgender inmates be “evaluated by appropriate medical and mental health professionals and have their treatment determined on a case by case basis,” reflecting the “current, accepted standards of care.”  The policy does not mention surgery, but doctors have repeatedly denied Gibson’s request for surgery because the TDCJ formal policy does not “designate [sex reassignment surgery] as part of the treatment protocol for Gender Identity Disorder.”

Gibson represented herself in this lawsuit until it reached the level of the Court of Appeals, at which point the court appointed counsel to represent Gibson on appeal: Stephen Louis Braga, I, of the University of Virginia Law School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic. This appointment is apparently only for the appeal; had the case been remanded, Gibson would presumably be pro se again.  From the court’s account of oral argument, referred to several times in the opinion, it appears that Braga made concessions at oral argument that supported the court’s ultimate conclusion because of how Judge Ho dealt with the facts, but it is clear that the court was most heavily influenced by a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit, Kosilek v. Spencer, 774 F. 3d 63 (1st Circuit, en banc, 2014), in which the full 1st Circuit bench reversed a three-judge panel’s 2-1 decision and held that a transgender inmate serving a sentence of life without parole was not entitled to receive sex reassignment surgery.  Most importantly, Judge Ho referred repeatedly to the 1st Circuit’s summary of expert medical testimony offered in that case, filling an important gap in this case’s record, where there is no direct expert testimony because the district court rejected Gibson’s claims outright.  Judge Barksdale’s dissent objects to heavy reliance on the Kosilek ruling in this way.

Prison inmates are entirely dependent on the corrections system for their health care, for obvious reasons.  The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have found that prisoners are entitled to “necessary treatment for serious medical conditions.”  There is a consensus among federal courts that gender dysphoria is a “serious medical condition,” but there is no judicial consensus about whether sex reassignment surgery is a necessary treatment for it, and to date there is no final ruling on the merits by any federal appeals court ordering a state to provide sex reassignment surgery to a transgender inmate.  As the courts have interpreted the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, a “necessary” treatment is one that has achieved general acceptance in the relevant medical specialty, and some courts have relied on Standards of Care published by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) as potentially supporting general acceptance – however, Judge Ho asserts, only in denying motions to dismiss cases, not in ultimate rulings on the merits.

The WPATH Standards state that “for many, surgery is essential and medically necessary to alleviate their gender dysphoria.”  But, Judge Ho observes, in the Kosilek decision, the 1st Circuit reported expert testimony sharply divided over whether sex reassignment is necessary treatment, and some testimony suggesting that WPATH is not an objective source but rather an organization devoted to advocacy for transgender rights whose published standards do not necessarily reflect a consensus of the medical profession, or even of individuals specializing in providing treatment to transgender patients.  Be that as it may, to the Gibson panel majority, this was sufficient to suggest that there is “serious dispute” within the medical profession about the necessity for sex reassignment surgery, and so long as that situation prevails, it is not “deliberate indifference” by the Texas corrections system to categorically refuse to provide such treatment.

While many federal courts have made clear that hormone therapy can be considered necessary for cases of severe gender dysphoria, and that counseling by itself is not always sufficient to meet the constitutional standard of care, even that point is not universally accepted, as Judge Ho demonstrated by citing cases on both sides of the question.  Regardless of how the medical necessity point is resolved, however, the judge pointed out that under the 8th Amendment’s language – cruel and unusual – it is not unusual to deny sex reassignment surgery to inmates diagnosed with gender dysphoria – indeed, it is the norm – and thus such denial cannot be found to violate the Constitution as an “unusual punishment.”

Judge Barksdale’s dissent argued that Gibson has never been afforded the opportunity in the lower courts to present any evidence beyond the factual assertions in her complaint. “Accordingly,” she wrote, “as the majority notes correctly, this appeal springs from this very unusual and improper procedure and resulting sparse summary-judgment record, which is insufficient for summary judgment purposes,” so she dissented from “the majority’s reaching the merits of this action, which concerns the Eighth Amendment’s well-established requirements for medical treatment to be provided prisoners.”

Judge Ho specifically responds to Barksdale’s various objections by asserting that it would be a waste of time and judicial resources to remand the case to build a factual record because, as he found, categorical denial of a right to sex reassignment surgery is so well-founded in the existing case law and facts readily available from published sources, including the Kosilek decision, that there is no need to compile a record of the individual facts of Gibson’s case.  The panel majority considers that Gibson’s factual allegations fail to generate material fact issues that would need to be resolved before the court could render a decision on the merits as a matter of law. To the majority, there is no disputing that medical practitioners are divided as to whether sex reassignment surgery is a necessary treatment, so there is no need for inquiry into Gibson’s individual case.

Judge Ho drew an analogy to an attempt by an inmate to obtain a drug that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved, pointing out that no court would find that a prisoner’s right to receive necessary treatment would be abridged by refusing to provide a treatment that has not been approved by the FDA.  He also relies on some outdated information concerning practices under Medicaid and Medicare, as the Obama Administration withdrew the formal refusal to fund sex reassignment surgery under those programs, and there actually is a small but growing body of case law finding that these government programs must provide such treatment in appropriate cases, consistent with the Equal Protection Clause.  There is also a U.S. Tax Court decision finding that the costs of sex reassignment surgery are tax deductible, based on its conclusion that it is a medical necessary treatment within the meaning of the Internal Revenue Code’s medical deduction provisions.  (Law Notes reports below a new decision by the Iowa Supreme Court holding that refusing to provide such treatment under the state’s Medicaid program violated the Iowa civil rights law’s ban on gender identity discrimination. EerieAnna Good and Carol Beal v. Iowa Department of Human Services, 2019 WL 1086614, 2019 Iowa Sup. LEXIS 19 (March 8, 2019).)  But what Ho is looking for is a professional medical consensus, not a legal consensus, and that has not yet been achieved, in the court’s view.

Gibson can seek rehearing en banc or petition the Supreme Court for further review.  Failing that, however, the precedent is now set for the states of the 5th Circuit – Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi – as they were previously set for the 1st Circuit – Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico – that state corrections systems can categorically refuse to provide gender confirmation surgery to transgender inmates.

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Herrick Loses 2nd Circuit Appeal in Grindr Cyberharassment Case

A unanimous three-judge panel of the New York-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit issued a ruling on March 27 stating total agreement with District Judge Valerie Caproni’s earlier ruling in January 2018 that Grindr enjoys totally immunity from any liability for the harms suffered by Matthew Herrick, a gay Manhattanite whose ex-boyfriend created fake Grindr profiles in Herrick’s name that led more than a thousand people to contact Herrick at home and at work for “fetishistic sex, bondage, role playing, and rape fantasies.”

Unlike Judge Caproni, the appellate panel, consisting of Circuit Judges Dennis Jacobs, Reena Raggi, and Raymond J. Lohier, Jr., omitted some of the gory details from their brief “summary order” which does not have “precedential effect” but which nonetheless seems totally consistent with other court decisions interpreting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal statute that Congress intended to crack down on internet pornography by requiring service providers, among other things, to enable parental controls over what minors can access on-line.

Herrick achieved some initial success when he first filed suit in a New York State court, getting a motion judge to grant a temporary restraining order requiring Grindr to disable the fake profiles.  But Grindr immediately removed the action to federal court and moved to dismiss it, citing Section 230, which as relevant to this lawsuit says: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

In other words, as found by Judge Caproni and the 2nd Circuit judges, Grindr is not responsible for the content of what users of its app post there.   Of course, there is nothing in this statute to prevent Herrick from suing his ex-boyfriend using various state law theories, but Grindr is essentially immune from liability for harm caused by content posted on its app by users.

Herrick’s attorneys ended up amending the original complaint that he had filed by himself in state court, in order to allege a wide array of possible legal theories seeking to escape Section 230 immunity, but to no avail.  The court found that all of Herrick’s claims arose out of “information provided by another information content provider” – that is, his ex-boyfriend – and thus all of them fell within the broad sphere of Section 230.  The provision has been liberally interpreted by federal courts to avoid imposing an extremely burdensome censorship obligation on operators of what the statute calls “interactive computer services,” which include “any information service, system, or access software provider that provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server.”

As Judge Caproni found in her earlier decision, courts have found that “social networking sites like Facebook.com, and online matching services like Roommates.com and Matchmaker.com,” fall within this category, so its application to Grindr is not controversial.

Trying to get around this, the lawyers argued that Grindr is providing a defective product and is misrepresenting the safety of its site for users, but the court found that Grindr’s Terms of Service published on its site provide adequate warnings.  “The district court determined that there was no material misrepresentation by Grindr because the allegedly misleading statements identified in the Amended Complaint – Grindr’s Terms of Service and its ‘community values page’ – do not represent that Grindr will remove illicit content or take action against users who provide such content,” wrote the court of appeals, “and the Terms of Service specifically disclaim any obligation or responsibility to monitor user content.”

The court said that even if it assumed that Herrick reasonably relied on assurances when he created his own Grindr account in 2011, “his claim would fail for lack of causation.” That’s because after he met his ex-boyfriend in 2015, he deactivated his Grindr account, long before the harassment following their breakup occurred.  “Herrick therefore could have suffered the exact same harassment if he had never seen the Terms of Service or created a Grindr account,” wrote the court, “so his injury is not a direct and proximate result of his reliance on (alleged) misrepresentations.”

Furthermore, Grindr’s Terms of Service were full of disclaimers for any responsibility for what users of the service posted there, which makes any reliance claim not credible.

Ultimately, said the court, quoting from a decision by the San-Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, under Section 230 an interactive computer service “will not be held responsible unless it assisted in the development of what made the content unlawful” and cannot be held liable for providing “neutral assistance” in the form of tools and functionality available equally to bad actors and the app’s intended users.”

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