The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 16, 2020, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. — , 2020 WL 3146686, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 3252, that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bans employment discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, was the fifth landmark in a chain of important LGBT rights victories dating from 1996, continuing the Court’s crucial role in expanding the rights of LGBT people. The ruling culminated seventy years of struggle and activism seeking statutory protection for sexual minorities against employment discrimination, dating from the 1950s, when early LGBT rights organizations always listed such protection as one of their goals, even before the federal government began to address the issue of employment discrimination statutorily in 1964.
Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch wrote the Court’s opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts (a George Bush appointee), and the four Justices appointed by Democratic presidents: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer (Bill Clinton) and Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan (Barack Obama).
Samuel Alito, appointed to the Court by George Bush, wrote an outraged dissenting opinion, joined by Clarence Thomas, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush. Trump-appointee Brett Kavanaugh penned a more temperate dissent, concluding with a surprising salute to the movement’s achievement of this milestone.
Justice Gorsuch’s emergence as the writer of this opinion caught many by surprise, since he is an acolyte of Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he replaced on the Court. Despite Scalia’s avowed commitment to many of the interpretive principles that Gorsuch also embraces, one could not imagine Scalia writing such an opinion, especially in light of the vitriolic dissenting opinions that he wrote to all four prior landmark opinions.
Because Chief Justice Roberts voted with the majority of the Court, he was in the position to assign the majority opinion to Gorsuch. Had this been a 5-4 ruling without Roberts, Justice Ginsburg, the senior justice in the majority, would have decided which justice would write for the Court. In the two marriage equality rulings, Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose approach to gay issues had been established in earlier cases, assigned the opinions to himself as senior justice in the majority. Ginsburg might well have assigned the opinion to Gorsuch in any event, to help secure his vote, especially as it was possible that if Ginsburg or one of the other Democratic appointees wrote an opinion embracing arguments Gorsuch could not accept, he might either drift away or write a concurrence in the judgment, resulting in a plurality opinion. It is even possible that Roberts’ vote came from his institutional concern that such a significant ruling have the weight of a 6-3 vote. Since there were already five votes in favor of the employee parties, his vote would not affect the outcome, but would give him some control over the opinion through his assignment to Gorsuch.
The 1996 landmark gay rights ruling was Romer v. Evans, a decision that established for the first time that a state’s discrimination against “homosexuals” violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, striking down a homophobic amendment that Colorado voters had added to their state constitution, forbidding the state from providing anti-discrimination protection to gay people. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for a 6-3 Court found that the only explanation for the Colorado amendment’s adoption was animus against lesbians and gay men, never a constitutionally valid reason, so the Court did not expressly consider whether heightened scrutiny would apply to a sexual orientation discrimination claim.
The second landmark decision was Lawrence v. Texas (2003), declaring that a state law making gay sex a crime violated the guarantee of liberty in the 14th Amendment’s Due Process clause, and overruling a 1986 decision, Bowers v. Hardwick, which had rejected such a challenge to Georgia’s penal law.
The third landmark, United States v. Windsor, held in 2013 that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages that states had authorized, striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had put into the United States Code a definition of marriage limited to different-sex couples. The Court held that this violated the Due Process and Equal Protection rights of same-sex couples under the 5th Amendment, again without explicitly engaging in discussion of whether a law discriminating based on sexual orientation is subject to heightened scrutiny.
The fourth landmark, Obergefell v. Hodges, held in 2015 that gay people enjoyed the same fundamental right to marry that had previously been guaranteed to straight people under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment. Since the Court dealt with this as a fundamental rights case, both from the perspectives of due process and equal protection, it again avoided discussing whether the discriminatory aspect of the case implicated a suspect or quasi-suspect classification of sexual orientation.
In each of these cases, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Jr., wrote for the Court. The decisions were noteworthy as being the product of an otherwise conservative Court whose Republican appointees outnumbered the Democratic appointees. In Windsor and Obergefell, Kennedy was the only Republican appointee to side with the Democratic appointees to make up the 5-4 majority of the Court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan, cast a sixth vote for the prevailing parties in Romer and Lawrence. Her replacement, Justice Alito, dissented in Windsor and Obergefell, as well as Bostock.
The Bostock decision, incorporating two other cases, Altitude Express v. Zarda and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was the first major LGBT rights decision by the Court since Kennedy retired and Trump made his second appointment to the Court, seemingly locking in a solid conservative majority that was expected not to be so receptive to LGBT rights claims. With the retirement of Kennedy, it was widely believed that it would be unlikely for a gay rights claim to carry a majority of the Court.
Consequently, when the Court announced more than a year ago that it would review these three cases, tremors ran through the LGBT rights legal community. Although progress had been made in persuading the Obama Administration – including the EEOC – and the lower federal courts that Title VII’s ban on “discrimination because of an individual’s sex” could be interpreted to forbid discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, it was difficult for people to count a fifth vote to add to the presumed votes of the Democratic appointees on the Court. Chief Justice Roberts had emphatically dissented from the Windsor and Obergefell rulings, and LGBT rights groups had strongly opposed the nominations of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, based on their extremely conservative records as court of appeals judges, which was seemingly borne out in Gorsuch’s case by his dissent in Pavan v. Smith (2017), taking the transparently incorrect position that the Court had not clearly held in Obergefell that same-sex marriages must be treated the same as different-sex marriages for all legal purposes, including birth certificates, something specifically mentioned in Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion. Nobody really thought it possible that Alito or Thomas would ever cast a vote in favor of an LGBT employee’s claim, but Kavanaugh and Gorsuch were a question marks, as was the unpredictable chief justice, despite his anti-LGBT voting record up to that time.
The only facts about these cases that were relevant to the Supreme Court’s decision were that the three employees whose discrimination claims ended up before the Court claimed that they were fired because of their sexual orientation (Gerald Bostock and Donald Zarda) or their gender identity (Aimee Stephens) in violation of Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination. The merits of the Title VII claims had not been decided in Bostock or Zarda, because the district courts in both cases found the claims not to be covered under Title VII and dismissed them. Aimee Stephens’ Title VII claim survived a motion to dismiss, however; the district court found that although Title VII, standing alone, was violated in her case (but solely using a gender stereotype theory rather than holding the gender identity claims are necessarily covered by Title VII), but that the employer, a deeply religious funeral home owner, had a valid defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and so granted judgement to the employer. The 11th Circuit affirmed the dismissal in Bostock, as did a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit in Zarda, but the 2nd Circuit ultimately reversed the dismissal en banc. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which had sued on Stephens’ behalf, appealed to the 6th Circuit, which reversed the district court, finding the RFRA defense invalid, and ruling that Stephens’ gender identity discrimination claim had been proven. The 6th Circuit also rejected the district court’s conclusion that the EEOC, representing Stephens, was limited to a gender stereotyping claim, expanding on its prior precedents to hold that gender identity claims are necessarily covered by Title VII as a form of sex discrimination. Thus, the only final merits ruling in the cases before the Court was the EEOC’s (and Stephens’) victory in the 6th Circuit. Stephens had intervened at the 6th Circuit, represented by the ACLU, making her a respondent alongside the EEOC in the Supreme Court.
After the Trump Administration took office, the Solicitor General took over the case from the EEOC and, consistent with the Administration’s view that Title VII did not forbid gender identity discrimination, effectively “changed sides,” arguing that the employer should have prevailed. But, surprisingly inasmuch as the employer was being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious freedom litigation group, the employer had not sought review of the 6th Circuit’s rejection of its RFRA defense, so the only question before the Court was the Title VII interpretation issue. Stephens was left to defend the 6th Circuit’s ruling, with the EEOC, represented by the Solicitor General, on the other side. The Solicitor General also participated as an amicus on behalf of the government in the Bostock and Zarda cases.
There was a big difference between the earlier landmark cases and this case. The four landmarks all involved interpretations of Constitutional Due Process and Equal Protection, and were decided, in sometimes quite emotional opinions by Justice Kennedy, based on concepts of human dignity and equality. The Bostock case, by contrast, was a matter solely of statutory interpretation, and solely of Title VII (despite Justice Alito’s decision to dwell on the RFRA question in his dissent). Perhaps surprisingly, two of the most ardent “textualists” on the Court, Trump’s appointees, parted company about how to apply that approach in determining the meaning of a 55-year-old statute.
Textualists contend that statutory interpretation is a matter of figuring out what the meaning of statutory language was at the time it was adopted. Extraneous information, such as congressional committee reports, hearing transcripts, speeches on the floor of Congress or statements inserted into the Congressional Record, are generally rejected by textualists, who argue, as Scalia memorably wrote in a 1998 opinion also involving Title VII and sex discrimination, that “it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”
Gorsuch and Kavanaugh (as well as Alito) swear allegiance to this principle, but it took them in different directions in this case. Gorsuch, who had signaled this result as a possibility during the oral argument on October 8 last year, inclined towards a literalistic approach to the words of Title VII. While claiming that he was trying to determine “the ordinary public meaning” of the words at the time they were enacted, he rejected the argument that this meant that sexual orientation and gender identity could not possibly be covered, because he was persuaded by various arguments and examples that the statute as properly understood has always prohibited discrimination against people because of their “homosexuality” or “transgender status.” He wrote, “an employer who intentionally treats a person worse because of sex – such as firing the person for actions or attributes it would tolerate in an individual of another sex – discriminates against that person in violation of Title VII.”
Having accepted that point, he found persuasive several examples offered by counsel for Bostock and Zarda. Most prominent was the example of two employees, a man and a woman, with equally good qualifications, work records, and so forth, both of whom are attracted to men. The employer will hire the woman but reject the man. Because the employer will tolerate attraction to men by women but not by men, the employer’s refusal to hire the man is discrimination because of the man’s sex.
Stating his holding more generally, he wrote: “An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex. It doesn’t matter if other facts besides the plaintiff’s sex contributed to the decision. And it doesn’t matter if the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group.” The idea is that sex is supposed to be irrelevant to a personnel decision unless, as the statute provides, the employer can prove that sex is a bona fide occupational qualification for the job in question, an affirmative defense provision that Gorsuch neglects to mention. But Gorsuch agreed that making a personnel decision because the person is gay or transgender makes sex relevant to the decision, and thus is generally prohibited by Title VII. Or, as he put it quite strongly, “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
The issue, wrote Gorsuch, is whether the plaintiff’s sex is a “but-for” cause of the challenged personnel action, but it doesn’t have to be the sole cause, because the statute does not expressly require that. “When an employer fires an employee because she is homosexual or transgender,” he explained, “two causal factors may be in play, both the individual’s sex and something else (the sex to which the individual is attracted or with which the individual identifies). But Title VII doesn’t care. If an employer would not have discharged an employee but for that individual’s sex, the statute’s causation standard is met, and liability may attach.” Because all three cases being argued involved discharges, it is not surprising that Gorsuch mentions only discharges, but the clear important of the decision is that all the personnel actions coming within the scope of Title VII come within this ruling.
Responding to the argument that this could not possibly be the meaning of a statute passed in 1964, Gorsuch insisted that it has always been the meaning, it just was not recognized as such by the courts until more recently. He characterized this as the “elephant in the room” that everybody pretended was not really there. It was now time to recognize the presence of the elephant.
Aside from some passing references, Gorsuch’s interpretive discussion, and the examples he presented, focused mainly on the sexual orientation issue, but he was careful to mention gender identity or transgender status as well as sexual orientation whenever he stated his conclusions.
Alito unkindly stated in his dissent that Gorsuch’s conclusion that sexual orientation and gender identity are covered by Title VII is “preposterous.” Alito’s focus on the “original meaning” of statutory language, which he documents at length, shows as a matter of the historical record that in 1964 gay people were widely reviled as sick criminals, so it is impossible in his view to read the statutory language of 1964 as forbidding discrimination on this ground. Furthermore, he pointed out, as of 1964 the public’s awareness of transgender individuals was slight at best. Indeed, the very terms “transgender” and “gender identity” were not even used until much later. That a statute enacted in 1964 could be interpreted as prohibiting discrimination on this ground could not possibly accord with its “ordinary public meaning” at that time, he argued. But Gorsuch countered that Alito was talking about legislative intent, not contemporary meaning of the statutory language. As Scalia wrote so often in cases where he rejected evidence of legislative history, when the law is reduced to a written text, it is the text that is the law. Gorsuch even cited a few sources to suggest that some people at or near the time of enactment actually believed that gay or transgender people might have discrimination claims under Title VII.
“Ours is a society of written laws,” Gorsuch wrote. “Judges are not free to overlook plain statutory commands on the strength of nothing more than suppositions about intentions or guesswork about expectations. In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
Reading Alito’s dissenting opinion may induce nausea in the reader, so graphic is his recounting of the horrendously homophobic views of the government and the public towards LGBT people in 1964, but he recites them to make his point that prohibition of discrimination on these grounds could not possibly be a correct textualist interpretation of this language from his perspective. He started his dissent pointedly by saying that the Court was engaged in “legislation,” not interpretation. And he concentrated on shooting holes in Gorsuch’s examples of the situations that led Gorsuch to conclude that discrimination because of homosexuality or transgender identity is, at least in part, sex discrimination.
Alito also wandered far from the central question in the cases, interjecting discussion of various issues likely to arise as a result of the decision, such as hardship for employers with religious objections to homosexuality or transgender identity (such as the employer in the Harris Funeral Homes case), and objections by co-workers to transgender employees using bathrooms and locker rooms. Gorsuch rejoined that these were questions for another day, not presently relevant to decide the appeals before the Court, noting particularly that Harris Funeral Homes had not asked the Court to review the 6th Circuit’s decision rejecting its RFRA defense. Alito was definitely putting down markers for the future cases that the Court may confront.
Kavanaugh makes some of the same points as Alito in his dissenting opinion, but it is notable that he did not join Alito’s dissent. This may be at least in part a generational thing. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are considerably younger than Alito. By the time they were in college and law school, there were out gay people around and, on a personal level, they undoubtedly both agreed that as a matter of politics it would be appropriate for Congress to ban such discrimination. They just differed on whether the Court could reach the same result through interpretation of the 55-year old law. Kavanaugh noted that three-judge panels of ten circuit courts of appeals had rejected this interpretation. 30 judges out of 30, he wrote, more than once in his opinion, as if the unanimity of an incorrect interpretation somehow turned it into a correct interpretation. Obviously, these judges did not recognize the “elephant in the room”!
For Kavanaugh, this was really a “separation of powers” issue. The question for the Court, he wrote, was “Who decides?” The legislature has the power to make law, while the courts are limited to interpreting the statutes passed by the legislature. Here, agreeing with Alito, he asserted that the Court’s decision was violating the separation of powers. And he disagreed with Gorsuch’s approach to textualism in this case, find it too narrowly focused on individual works, thus losing the context necessary in his view to determine the contemporary “public meaning” of the overall provision in 1964.
However, Kavanaugh concluded his dissent revealing his political, as opposed to interpretive, preferences. “Notwithstanding my concern about the Court’s transgression of the Constitution’s separation of powers, it is appropriate to acknowledge the important victory achieved today by gay and lesbian Americans,” he wrote. “Millions of gay and lesbian Americans have worked hard for many decades to achieve equal treatment in fact and in law. They have exhibited extraordinary vision, tenacity, and grit – battling often steep odds in the legislative and judicial arenas, not to mention in their daily lives. They have advanced powerful policy arguments and can take pride in today’s results. Under the Constitution’s separation of powers, however, I believe that it was Congress’s role, not this Court’s, to amend Title VII.” Kavanaugh’s dissent largely ignored transgender people. His omission of them from this paragraph is inexplicable in light of the scope of the Court’s opinion and their activist role over the past several decades in seeking protection against discrimination.
Interestingly, Gorsuch premised the case entirely on a strict textualist reading of the statute, avoiding reliance on the alternative theories that the EEOC and some lower courts embraced. One such theory was gender stereotyping, grounded in the Court’s 1989 decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, in which the Court held that an employer who takes an adverse action because an employee fails to comport with stereotypes about women or men has exhibited an impermissible motivation for its actions under Title VII. Another theory, first developed in race discrimination cases, was that discharging a worker because he or she was engaged in an interracial relationship was a form of discrimination because of race. Neither this “associational theory” nor the sex stereotyping theory entered into Gorsuch’s rationale for binding Title VII applicable in Bostock.
The Court’s opinion has the immediate effect of extending protection to LGBT workers in the majority of states that do not ban sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in their state civil rights laws, but there remain significant gaps in protection. Title VII applies to employers with at least 15 employees, state and local government employees, and federal employees. It does not apply to the uniformed military (so this decision does not directly affect Trump’s transgender service ban), or to religious organizations in their policies on “ministerial employees.” Thus, a substantial portion of the nation’s workforce does not gain any protection from discrimination by this interpretation of Title VII, because a substantial portion of the workforce is employed by smaller businesses or is classified as non-employee contractors. Furthermore, as Gorsuch noted briefly but Alito expounded at length, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) might be interpreted to “supplant” the Title VII protections in particular cases.
The potential application of RFRA is worth noting. Reading Gorsuch’s opinion, one might immediately identify this as a potential “poison pill.” A few years ago, in its Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court suddenly discovered that business corporations could argue that a particular policy mandated by another federal law unduly burdened the employer’s free exercise of religion, and they might thereby escape compliance with the law if the government fell short in showing that its policy was the least restrictive alternative to achieve a compelling government interest. (In Harris Funeral Homes, the 6th Circuit interpreted RFRA in this context and found that the government’s compelling interest in preventing sex discrimination could be achieved only by an outright prohibition, without an exception for business owners who had religious objections.) Although Justice Alito’s opinion for the Court in Hobby Lobby rejected the idea that an employer could make such an argument in defense of a race discrimination claim, Justice Ginsburg pointed out in dissent that Alito’s opinion failed to address the issue of sexual orientation, pointing to cases where businesses claimed a religiously-based right to discriminate against gay people. This is an issue that is hardly settled, and Gorsuch’s reference to the possibility of RFRA as a “super statute” to “supplant” Title VII protections in “appropriate cases” is ominous. Where a case does not involve “ministerial employees,” the full weight of Title VII normally applies to the issue of employment discrimination by religious institutions whether because of race or color, sex or national origin. Shortly, the Court will be ruling on some new cases about the scope of this “ministerial” exception, and may issue a decision that bears on cases in which, for example, gay employees of Catholic educational institutions have been terminated for entering same-sex marriages.
In addition, of course, Title VII only applies to employment decisions. It doesn’t affect decisions by companies about hiring people as non-employee independent contractors, and it doesn’t apply to the myriad other ways that LGBT people encounter discrimination through denial of services, housing, and other privileges of living in our society. This decision does not eliminate the need for enactment of the Equality Act, a bill that would amend numerous provisions of federal law to extend anti-discrimination protection to LGBT people, while amending Title VII to make explicit the coverage of sexual orientation and gender identity. Perhaps most importantly in terms of gap-filling, the Equality Act would add “sex” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in federal public accommodations law while at the same time expanding the concept of a public accommodation, and would also require federal contractors and funding recipients not to discriminate on these grounds.
Alito’s dissent suggested that the reasoning of the Court’s opinion could protect LGBT people from discrimination under all those other federal statutes that address discrimination because of sex. That would fill a significant part of the gap left by this decision, but not all of it, because, as explained in the previous paragraph, the Civil Rights Act provisions on public accommodations do not forbid sex discrimination and small employers are not covered. Alito appended to his dissent a list of more than 100 federal statutory provisions that he claimed would be affected by this decision, among them Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, under which courts have addressed disputes involving transgender students. This provides a useful “to do” list for the LGBT rights litigation groups, finding cases to firmly establish that the Court’s conclusion in Bostock applies to all those other protections. Closing the gaps through passage of the Equality Act and through passage of state and local laws to cover employers not subject to Title VII must be an ongoing project. There also may be an opening to persuade state courts that they should adopt similar interpretations of the prohibition of sex discrimination under their state laws.
An early test may come as courts confront challenges to a new regulation announced by the Department of Health and Human Services, just days before this decision was announced, reversing an Obama Administration rule under the Affordable Care Act’s antidiscrimination provision and “withdrawing” protection against discrimination under that Act for transgender people. Lawsuits were quickly threatened challenging this regulation. The ACA incorporates by reference the sex discrimination ban in Title IX, so federal courts should read this consistentlyly with Bostock and hold that the regulatory action violates the statute.
Another important point to bear in mind is that coverage of a form of discrimination by the statute does not inevitably lead to a ruling on the merits for the employee. Title VII litigation can be very difficult, and many employees lose their cases early in the process due to procedural roadblocks or, in the case of sex discrimination claims, to the courts’ view that sex may be a “bona fide occupational qualification” in a particular case. When plaintiffs attempt to represent themselves, they may be felled by statutes of limitations, shortcomings in their factual pleadings, or limited resources to investigate the facts and articulate a convincing claim as required by federal civil pleading standards. Furthermore, many employers require employees to execute arbitration agreements when they are hired, so plaintiffs seeking to get their proverbial “day in court” may be disappointed to discover that they are relegated to arguing in private before an arbitrator, in many cases carefully selected by the employer based on his or her “track record” in ruling on employee claims. The road to vindication is not always a smooth one.
The Court’s decision was immediately controversial with certain conservative and religious groups, some of which quickly made spurious claims about how this ruling could interfere with their free exercise and free speech rights, but public opinion polls have consistently shown overwhelming support for outlawing employment discrimination against LGBT people for many years now, so there was no startled outcry by the public at large in the days following the ruling. Those who are cynical about the idea of judging by “neutral principals of law” have often exclaimed that the Supreme Court follows the election returns, so they may characterize this opinion as more political than legal, but the “bipartisan” nature of the line-up of justices would rebut that contention. And, notably, many of the court of appeals decisions that have ruled this way in recent years have also been bipartisan. The opinion, in the matter of fact way that Gorsuch writes about “homosexual” and “transgender” people in the opinion, comes across as impassive by comparison to the florid prose of Kennedy, but it gets the job done.
Kavanaugh’s closing paragraph says that “gays and lesbians” should take pride in this victory, which was hard-earned through decades of political, legal and personal struggle. A brief pause to take pride in this ruling is appropriate, but pushing ahead to fill the remaining gaps in full legal equality is essential. A battle has been won, but not yet the war.
Unfortunately, neither Donald Zarda nor Aimee Stephens lived to learn of their victories. Zarda, who had been fired from a job as a sky-diving instructor, died in a sky-diving accident while his case was pending. Stephens was gravely ill by the time of the oral argument (which she attended, although wheelchair bound), and passed away just weeks before the Court’s decision. Gerald Bostock, however, gave delighted interviews to the press, and was looking forward to the remand back to the district court so that he would get his opportunity to prove that he was the victim of unlawful discrimination.
The Court was flooded with amicus briefs in these cases, too numerous to mention individually here. On October 8, 2019, the Court first heard arguments on the sexual orientation issue, with Pamela S. Karlen representing Bostock and the Estate of Zarda, Jeffrey M. Harris representing the Clayton County and Altitude Express, and Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco presenting the Trump Administration’s position in support of the employers. Next the Court heard arguments on the gender identity issue, with David Cole representing Stephens, John J. Bursch representing Harris Funeral Homes, and again Solicitor General Francisco representing the Trump Administration’s position that gender identity discrimination is not covered by Title VII. The EEOC, the respondent in the case, was not separately represented and did not support the government’s position, evidenced by the government’s briefs, which unusually did not list attorneys from the agency.
Posts Tagged ‘ACLU LGBT Rights Project’
Supreme Court Holds that Federal Law Bans Anti-LGBT Employment Discrimination in Historic 6-3 Ruling
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 16, 2020, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. — , 2020 WL 3146686, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 3252, that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bans employment discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, was the fifth landmark in a chain of important LGBT rights victories dating from 1996, continuing the Court’s crucial role in expanding the rights of LGBT people. The ruling culminated seventy years of struggle and activism seeking statutory protection for sexual minorities against employment discrimination, dating from the 1950s, when early LGBT rights organizations always listed such protection as one of their goals, even before the federal government began to address the issue of employment discrimination statutorily in 1964.
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.
Federal Government Asks the Supreme Court to Delay Deciding Whether Title VII Bars Gender Identity Discrimination
The Trump Administration has asked the Supreme Court to hold off for now on deciding whether gender identity discrimination is covered under the ban on employment discrimination “because of sex” in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco and several other Justice Department attorneys are listed on a brief filed with the Court on October 24, ostensibly on behalf of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), arguing that the Court should not now grant review of a decision by the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled earlier this year that Harris Funeral Homes violated Title VII by discharging Aimee Stephens, a transgender employee, who was transitioning and sought to comply with the employer’s dress code for female employees. The proprietor of the funeral home objected on religious grounds to having an employee whom he regards as a man dressing as a woman at work. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 18-107.
The government’s move came as something of a surprise, in light of recent news that a memorandum, originating from the Civil Rights Office in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is circulating within the Trump Administration proposing to adopt a regulation defining “sex” in terms solely of genitals and chromosomes and thus, effectively, excluding “gender identity” as part of the definition of sex for purposes of federal law.
The Solicitor General’s brief argues that instead, the Court should focus on one or both of two Petitions now pending that seek review of decisions by the 2nd Circuit and the 11th Circuit on the question whether sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited by Title VII. In the former case, Zarda v. Altitude Express, the en banc 2nd Circuit reversed prior circuit precedents and ruled that sexual orientation claims are covered by Title VII, following the lead of the 7th Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College (2017). In the other case, Bostock v. Clayton County, an 11th Circuit three-judge panel rejected a similar sexual orientation discrimination claim, and the circuit court turned down a petition for rehearing by the full circuit. In the Supreme Court, these cases are Bostock v. Clayton County Board of Commissioners, No. 17-1618, and Altitude Express v. Zarda, No. 17-1623.
In those two cases, the central question for the Court to decide is whether Title VII’s use of the term “sex” should be construed as the Trump Administration contends that it should be, as the simple difference between male and female as identified at birth, usually by the doctor’s visual inspection of genitals, or whether it should receive a broad interpretation that the EEOC and some lower federal courts have embraced, extending protection against discrimination to LGBTQ people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity as form of “discrimination because of sex.” This argument, for those preoccupied with the presumed legislative intent of the drafters and adopters of legislation, is based on the proposition that the Congress of 1964 did not intend to protect LGBTQ people from discrimination when they voted to include “sex” as a prohibited ground of employment discrimination in Title VII.
Referring to the pending sexual orientation case petitions, General Francisco’s brief argues, “If the Court grants plenary review in Zarda, Bostock, or both to address that question, its decision on the merits may bear on the proper analysis of the issues petitioner raises [in this case]. The court of appeals here relied on the reasoning of decisions (including Zarda) holding that Title VII’s prohibition on sex discrimination extends to sexual-orientation discrimination. Accordingly, the Court should hold the petition in this case pending its disposition of the petitions in Zarda and Bostock and, if certiorari is granted in either or both of those cases, pending the Court’s decision on the merits.” If the Court were to grant review in Zarda and/or Bostock, oral argument would be held sometime in the Spring with a decision expected by the end of June 2019, at which time the Court could send the Funeral Homes case back to the 6th Circuit for reconsideration in light of its decision in the sexual orientation cases, avoiding deciding the gender identity question itself. The Supreme Court has yet to issue a ruling on the question whether either the Constitution or federal statues protect transgender people from discrimination because of their gender identity.
Francisco’s brief also argues that the Court should not grant review in the Funeral Home case even if it decides not to review the sexual orientation cases. “To be sure,” says the brief, “the United States disagrees with the court of appeals’ decision. As relevant here, the court’s analysis of whether petitioner engaged in improper sex stereotyping reflects a misreading of Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989). The court’s further conclusion that gender-identity discrimination necessarily constitutes discrimination because of sex in violation of Title VII – although it was unnecessary to the ultimate result the court reached in this case – is also inconsistent with the statute’s text and this Court’s precedent. Both of those questions are recurring and important.”
This immediately raises the question why the Court should refuse to grant review to decide questions that are “recurring and important”? The Solicitor General’s response to that question appears to be improvised to cover over a difficult political transition that will eventually take place at the EEOC, the agency that filed suit against the Funeral Home on behalf of Aimee Stephens and is nominally the respondent on this petition at the Supreme Court.
President Trump has nominated three commissioners, one of whom, out lesbian Chai Feldblum (who was first appointed by President Obama and whose current term expires at the end of this year), has inspired fervent opposition from several Republican Senators. The other two nominees are Republicans whom the current Senate leadership would eagerly approve, but the three nominations were presented as a package, in recognition of the statutory requirement that no more than three of the five EEOC commissioners may be members of the same party, and the package has not moved in the Senate because of opposition to Feldblum. As of now, the EEOC has three commissioners – two Democrats and one Republican – and continues to take discrimination complaints under Title VII from LGBTQ people. If the package of nominees is approved, the new Republican majority of commissioners would likely come into line with the Justice Department’s position that Title VII does not cover such claims. If the “package” is not approved during the lame duck session of Congress, the EEOC will not be able to decide cases beginning on January 1, because it will lack a quorum of at least three Senate-confirmed commissioners. And the question of which party controls the next Senate will certainly affect which Trump nominees can be approved after January 3 when the new Senate convenes.
Setting aside the politics for the moment, however, the Solicitor General’s pragmatic argument is that there is a significant split among the circuit courts on the sexual orientation issues, which requires the Supreme Court to resolve with some urgency. But, says the brief, “Fewer circuits have addressed the questions presented in this case, and the panel decision here appears to be the first court of appeals decision to conclude in a Title VII case that gender identity discrimination categorically constitutes discrimination because of sex under that statute. If the Court determines that the question raised in Zarda and Bostock does not warrant plenary review at this time, the questions presented here would likewise not appear to warrant review at this juncture.”
Attorneys from the ACLU representing Aimee Stephens also filed a response to the Harris Funeral Homes’ petition on October 24. They argue that the Court should deny the petition.
They note that the Funeral Homes petition’s first “Question Presented” is “Whether the word ‘sex’ in Title VII’s prohibition on discrimination ‘because of sex’ meant ‘gender identity’ and included ‘transgender status’ when Congress enacted Title VII in 1964.” They argue that this case is a “poor vehicle for addressing petitioner’s first question because deciding it would not affect the judgment” of the lower court. This is because, simply stated, the 6th Circuit decided this case on alternative grounds, one of which was relying on a sex stereotyping theory (that the Funeral Home fired Stephens for not complying with the employer’s stereotype about how a genitally-male person should groom and dress), the other of which identified discrimination because of gender identity as a form of sex discrimination. So answering the first question in the negative would still leave the lower court’s judgment intact on the first – and widely-accepted – sex stereotyping theory. Note that this first “Question Presented” is only relevant at all if the Court attributes any special weight to what the adaptors of statutory language thought it meant at the time they adopted it: an originalist approach to statutory interpretation that the Court itself rejected in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services in 1998.
The second question in the Funeral Homes petition is whether Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins “prohibits employers from applying sex-specific policies according to their employees’ sex rather than their gender identity.” As to that, the ACLU’s brief argues that the second question “was not adjudicated below and is not properly presented” to the Court in this case, because, first, the 6th Circuit held that Stephens was fired “based on multiple sex stereotypes, not only those related to the dress code,” and second, that the 6th Circuit “expressly did not address the lawfulness of sex-specific dress codes” in its decision, and that “sex-specific restroom policies” – an issue alluded to in the Funeral Homes petition — “are not at issue in this case.” Citing cases from many different circuits, the brief also argues that the 6th Circuit’s ruling “does not conflict with Price Waterhouse or any court of appeals.” Over the years since 1989, numerous circuit courts have accepted transgender discrimination claims using the sex stereotyping theory that the Supreme Court articulated in Price Waterhouse.
The government’s brief is undoubtedly disappointing to Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the right-wing religious litigation group that is representing the Funeral Homes and urgently seeks review in this case, seemingly confident that the newly constituted Republican majority in the Supreme Court would likely overturn the 6th Circuit’s decision. After the Supreme Court Clerk listed the two sexual orientation petitions on the agenda for the Court’s end-of-September conference, ADF sent a letter to the Clerk, suggesting that the Court defer deciding whether to review those cases until after briefing was completed on the Funeral Homes petition – which was delayed because the Solicitor General twice requested and received from the Court an extension of time to file its response on behalf of the EEOC. ADF argued that the underlying questions in all three cases were related, so the Court should take them up together. Shortly after the letter was entered on the Court’s docket, the sexual orientation cases were removed from the agenda for the Court’s cert conference, and they had not been relisted for consideration. Now ADF finds the government arguing that the Court should not take up the cases together, and that the gender identity case should be deferred until the sexual orientation cases are decided, and should not even be addressed by the Court now if the Court decides not to take up the sexual orientation cases! ADF would likely see this as a lost opportunity to get the new Supreme Court majority to cut short the successful campaign by civil rights litigators to get federal courts to find protection for LGBTQ people under federal sex discrimination laws, an easier route to protection than passage of the Equality Act, which has been languishing in Congress for several years, denied even a hearing by the Republican-controlled chambers.
Although the S.G. attributed its requests for extensions of time to the need to deal with many other cases, it is possible that the S.G. was stalling in hopes that the new majority of EEOC commissioners would be quickly confirmed, and that the Commission would bring its position in line with the Justice Department (DOJ). Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued an internal DOJ memo on October 4, 2017, rejecting any interpretation of Title VII (or other federal sex discrimination laws, such as Title IX of the Education Amendments Act or the Fair Housing Act) that covered gender identity or sexual orientation. During the early months of the Trump Administration, the Justice Department and the Education Department (DOE) abandoned the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX, getting the Supreme Court to cancel an argument under that statute in transgender teen Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit against a Virginia school district over bathroom access, and DOE has stopped accepting and process discrimination claims from transgender students. Thus, DOJ may feel that it can overturn the Obama Administration’s expansive interpretation of sex discrimination laws without having to win a case in the Supreme Court. The government’s brief devotes several pages to restating the Sessions memorandum’s interpretation of Title VII and criticizing the 6th Circuit’s decision on the merits.
Court watchers noted something interesting about the brief filed by the Solicitor General. The list of attorneys on the brief does not include any lawyers from the EEOC, which is unusual when the government is representing a federal agency in a Supreme Court appeal of one of their lower court victories. In this case, of course, DOJ and the EEOC have a strong disagreement about the correct interpretation of Title VII, so DOJ, representing the Trump Administration’s position, is not inclined to let the lingering Democratic majority at the Commission have any say in how this case is argued at the Supreme Court.
With the government opposing its own victory in the lower court, the only party left to defend the lower court’s ruling is Aimee Stephens with her counsel from the ACLU, whose brief is signed by attorneys from the ACLU Foundation in Chicago, the ACLU Fund of Michigan, the ACLU LGBT Rights Project headquartered in New York, and the ACLU Foundation’s office in Washington.
Of course, if the Supreme Court ultimately decides to grant review in any of these Title VII cases, it can expect a barrage of amicus curiae briefs similar to the record-setting number filed in last term’s Masterpiece Cakeshop case.
Third Circuit Rejects Challenge to Pennsylvania School District’s Policy Allowing Transgender Students to Use Facilities Consistent with Their Gender Identities
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit took the unusual step on May 24 of announcing about an hour after hearing oral argument that it would unanimously affirm U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith’s ruling from last summer denying a motion for a preliminary injunction by a group of parents and students seeking to stop the Boyertown (Pennsylvania) Area School District from continuing to implement a policy allowing transgender students to use locker rooms and bathrooms corresponding to their gender identities. Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, 2018 WL 2355999 (3rd Cir., May 24, 2018), affirming 276 F. Supp. 2d 324 (E.D. Pa., August 25, 2017).
Later that day, the court issued a brief “Judgement” written by Circuit Judge Theodore A. McKee, so brief that it can be quoted in full here: “We agree Plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits and that they have not established that they will be irreparably harmed if their Motion to Enjoin the Boyertown School District’s policy is denied. We therefore Affirm the District Court’s denial of a preliminary injunction substantially for the reasons that the Court explained in its exceptionally well-reasoned Opinion of August 25, 2017. A formal Opinion will follow. The mandate shall issue forthwith. The time for filing a petition for rehearing will run from the date that the Court’s formal opinion is entered on the docket.” There was some suggestion in press reports that after hearing argument the court was concerned that the affirmance be effective immediately, since the school year would shortly end.
This is one of several similar cases filed around the country by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an organization formed to advance the freedom of Christians to assert the primacy of their beliefs over any conflicting obligations imposed by law. ADF is a staunch opponent of LGBT rights, battled on the ramparts to oppose marriage equality and to support the ability of businesses operated by Christians to refuse to sell their goods and services for same-sex weddings. ADF has inserted itself into the “bathroom wars” by filing lawsuits on behalf of parents and allegedly cisgender students who oppose allowing transgender students to use single-sex facilities consistent with their gender identities. When Judge Smith issued his decision last August, a federal magistrate judge in Illinois, Jeffrey T. Gilbert, had issued a report and recommendation to U.S. District Judge Jorge L. Alonso, which recommended denying ADF’s motion for a preliminary injunction against a similar school district policy in Students & Parents for Privacy v. United States Department of Education, 2016 WL 6134121 (N.D. Ill., Oct. 18, 2016), and Judge Smith cited and relied on Judge Gilbert’s analysis at various points in his decision. Judge Alonso subsequently adopted Judge Gilbert’s Report and Recommendations, over the objections of ADF, on December 29, 2017, in Students & Parents for Privacy v. United States Department of Education, 2017 WL 6629520.
The plaintiffs in the Boyertown case argued three legal theories: first, that the district’s policy violates the constitutional privacy rights of non-transgender students under the 14th Amendment; second, that the school district’s policy violates Title IX’s requirement, as fleshed out in Education Department regulations, to provide separate restroom and locker room facilities for boys and girls; and third, that the policy violates Pennsylvania’s common law tort of invasion of privacy by intruding on the right of seclusion of non-transgender students. Judge Smith found that the record compiled by the parties in response to the plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction showed that the plaintiffs were unlikely to prevail on any of these claims. The bulk of his lengthy opinion (which runs 83 pages, including about six pages of headnotes, in Lexis) is devoted to a careful delineation of the factual record upon which he based his legal analysis.
Judge Smith explored each of the three theories at length, rejecting ADF’s argument that high school students have some sort of fundamental constitutional right not to share restroom facilities with transgender students because of the possibility that a transgender student would see them in their underwear, and noting particularly that factual allegations by individual plaintiff students who had found themselves in restrooms with transgender students showed that even if such a “right” existed, it had not been violated in any instance.
As to the Title IX argument, plaintiff insisted that allowing transgender students to use the restrooms created a “hostile environment” for the non-transgender students, but Judge Smith, recurring to Judge Gilbert’s ruling in the Illinois case, observed that “the School District treats both male and female students similarly,” undercutting the argument that the District is discrimination in education opportunity “because of” the sex of the individual plaintiff students. “The practice applies to both the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms and bathrooms,” wrote Smith, “meaning that cisgender boys potentially may use the boys’ locker room and bathrooms with transgender boys and cisgender girls potentially may use the girls’ locker room and bathrooms with transgender girls. In addition, with regard to the transgender students, both transgender boys and transgender girls are treated similarly insofar as they, upon receiving permission from the School District, may use the locker rooms and bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity. Moreover, the School District is not discriminating against students regarding the use of alternative facilities if students are uncomfortable with the current practice insofar as those facilities are open to all students who may be uncomfortable using locker rooms or multi-user facilities… The School District’s similar treatment of all students I fatal to the plaintiffs’ Title IX claim.” Concluding on the Title IX point, Judge Smith wrote, “The plaintiffs have failed to cite to any case holding that a plaintiff can maintain a sexual harassment hostile environment claim when the allegedly sexually harassing party treats all individuals similarly and there is, as such, no evidence of gender/sex animus.” Simply put, the District was not “targeting” any student for particular adverse treatment because of his or her sex. Judge Smith also pointed out that the law of “hostile environment” as it has been developed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to which courts refer in Title IX cases, sets a very high evidentiary bar for establishing a hostile environment, which he concluded could not be met by the plaintiffs’ factual allegations in this case.
As to the tort of invasion of privacy claim, Judge Smith noted that there were no allegations that any of the named defendants had personally invaded the privacy of any of the plaintiffs, as the plaintiffs’ factual allegations all related to two transgender students, identified as Student A and Student B, whose presence in locker rooms or restrooms was the subject of individual plaintiffs’ angst. But, of course, Students A and B were only present in those facilities because the District’s policy allowed them to be. “The court does not deny that an individual seeks seclusion in a bathroom toilet stall from being viewed by other people outside of the stall,” wrote Judge Smith, pointing out that the cases cited by the plaintiffs in support of their common law privacy claims “involve alleged invasions of privacy in bathroom stalls,” usually involving police surveillance of public restrooms. “Here,” Smith pointed out, “there are no allegations and the plaintiffs presented no evidence that any transgender student invaded their seclusion while they were in a bathroom stall. And similarly, although the plaintiffs indicate that viewing a person while in a bathroom would be ‘considered “highly offensive” by any reasonable person,’ the case cited involved an intrusion into a single bathroom stall and not the presence of someone in the common area of a multi-user facility.” After noting how the plaintiffs’ factual allegations about particular incidents involving transgender students in restrooms fell short of supporting the plaintiffs’ contentions about unwanted exposure of their bodies, Smith wrote, “the court does not find that a reasonable person would be offended by the presence of a transgender student in the bathroom or locker room with them, despite the possibility that the transgender student could possibly be in a state of undress more significant than Student A was in this case when the male plaintiffs same him.” He concluded similarly regarding the other incidents described by the plaintiffs, and concluded they had not shown a likelihood that they would be able to establish liability under Pennsylvania’s invasion of privacy tort.
That could be the end of Smith’s analysis, since a finding that plaintiffs are likely to prevail would be necessary to ground a preliminary injunction against the District’s policy, but Smith, to be thorough, analyzed the irreparable harm factor that courts consider, concluding that because the District was providing single-user alternatives the individual plaintiffs would not be irreparable harmed if the policy was allowed to continue in effect. He concluded as well that because these two factors weighed against granting the injunction, there was no need to perform the “balance of harms” analysis that would necessarily follow if the plaintiffs had prevailed on the first two factors.
As noted above, the 3rd Circuit’s brief Judgement issued on May 24 described Judge Smith’s opinion as “exceptionally well-reasoned,” so it is likely that the “formal opinion” to follow will run along similar lines and probably quote liberally from Judge Smith. Also, it would not be surprising were the court of appeals to give persuasive weight to decisions from other courts ruling on claims by transgender students to a right under Title IX and the 14th Amendment to use facilities consistent with their gender identity. In the course of deciding those cases, the courts necessarily considered the same factual and legal issues presented by the Parents & Students cases. In light of the judicial rulings so far in these “bathroom wars” cases, a consensus seems to have emerged in the federal judiciary that is part of a larger movement in the law in the direction of recognizing transgender civil rights claims under both the Equal Protection Clause in constitutional law and the statutory bans on discrimination because of sex.
In addition to ADF’s attorneys and the attorneys defending the school district, the court heard from ACLU attorneys representing the interests of transgender students in the Boyertown School District, including lead attorney Leslie Cooper with the ACLU LGBT Rights Project, lead attorney Mary Catherine Roper with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and cooperating attorneys from Cozen O’Connor, a Philadelphia law firm.
Opening up a new chapter in the continuing battle of Gavin Grimm to vindicate his rights as a transgender man, U.S. District Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen issued an Order on May 22 denying the Gloucester County (Virginia) School Board’s motion to dismiss the latest version of the case Grimm filed back in July 2015, prior to his sophomore year at Gloucester High School.
During the summer of 2014, Grimm’s transition had progressed to the point where he and his mother met with high school officials to tell them that he was a transgender boy and “would be attending school as a boy,” wrote Judge Allen. They agreed to treat him as a boy, including allowing him to use the boys’ restrooms. He did so for about seven weeks without any incident, until complaints by some parents led the school board to adopt a formal policy prohibiting Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms. The school established some single-user restrooms that were theoretically open to all students, but Grimm was the only one who used them because they were not conveniently located to classrooms.
“Because using the single-user restrooms underscored his exclusion and left him physically isolated,” wrote Judge Allen, “Mr. Grimm refrained from using any restroom at school. He developed a painful urinary tract infection and had difficulty concentrating in class because of his physical discomfort.” During the summer after his sophomore year, he filed his lawsuit, alleging violations of Title IX – a federal statute that forbids schools from discriminating because of sex – and the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.
Meanwhile, Grimm had begun hormone therapy in December 2014, “which altered his bone and muscle structure, deepened his voice, and caused him to grow facial hair.” In June 2015, he received a new Virginia identification car from the Motor Vehicles Department designated him as male. During the summer of 2016, he had chest-reconstruction surgery, a necessary step to get the circuit court to issue an order changing his sex under Virginia law and directing the Health Department to issue him a birth certificate listing him as male. He received the new birth certificate in October 2016. Thus, as of that date, Grimm was male as a matter of Virginia law.
Yet, despite all these physical and legal changes, the School District clung to its contention that his “biological gender” was female and that he could not be allowed to use boys’ restrooms at the high school. The school maintained this prohibition through the end of the school year, when Grimm graduated.
Meanwhile, his lawsuit was not standing still. Senior U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar dismissed his Title IX claim in September 2015, denying his motion for a preliminary injunction, and holding his Equal Protection Claim in reserve while he appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond. In the spring of 2016, the 4th Circuit sent the case back to the district court, issuing an opinion holding that the court should have deferred to the position advanced by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice, which opined that discrimination because of gender identity is sex discrimination and schools are required under Title IX to treat student consistent with their gender identity.
Judge Doumar then issued a preliminary injunction during the summer of 2016 ordering the School District to let Grimm use the boys’ restrooms, but the School District obtained a stay of that order from the Supreme Court, which subsequently granted the School’s petition to review the 4th Circuit’s “deference” ruling. The Supreme Court scheduled the case for argument, but then the incoming Trump Administration “withdrew” the position that the Obama Administration had taken, knocking the props out from under the 4th Circuit “deference” ruling, and persuaded the Supreme Court to cancel the argument and send the case back to the 4th Circuit, which in turn sent it back to the district court. And, by the time it got there, Grimm had graduated from Gloucester County High School.
The School District attempted to get rid of the case at that point, arguing that it was moot. Grimm begged to differ, arguing that his Title IX and Equal Protection rights had been continuously violated by the School District from the time it adopted its exclusionary restroom policy through the time of his graduation. In a newly amended complaint, Grimm sought a declaratory judgement as to the violation of his rights under both Title IX and the constitution and an end to the school’s exclusionary policy.
The School District moved to dismiss this new complaint, leading to the May 22 ruling by Judge Allen, to whom the case had been reassigned in the interim. Judge Doumar, who was born in 1930, was appointed to the court by President Reagan and is still serving as a part-time senior district judge. Judge Allen was appointed to the court by President Obama in 2011.
Judge Allen’s opinion relies heavily on important judicial developments that have occurred since Judge Doumar’s initial dismissal of the Title IX claim back in 2015. The 4th Circuit has yet to issue a ruling on the merits of the question whether federal laws that forbid discrimination because of sex can be construed to apply to gender identity discrimination claims. Since the Supreme Court has also avoided addressing that issue, it was open to Judge Allen to follow as “persuasive precedents” the lengthening list of rulings from other federal courts, including five different circuit courts of appeals and many district courts, holding that sex discrimination laws should be broadly construed to cover gender identity claims.
These decisions draw their authority from two important Supreme Court decision: Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989) and Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services (1998). In Price Waterhouse, the Supreme Court accepted as evidence of intentional sex discrimination an accounting firm’s denial of a partnership to a woman who was deemed inadequately feminine by several partners who voted against her. In Oncale, the Court ruled that Title VII, the federal law banning employment discrimination because of sex, could apply to a claim of hostile environment sexual harassment by a man who worked in an all-male workplace, commenting that even if this scenario was not contemplated by Congress when it passed Title VII in 1964, that statute could be applied to “comparable” situations.
Since the turn of the century, federal appeals courts have used those two cases to find that transgender people can seek relief from discrimination under the Gender-Motivated Violence Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, and the Equal Protection Clause. In addition, district courts have found such protection under the Fair Housing Act. A consensus based on the gender stereotype theory has emerged, even in circuits that have generally been hostile to sexual minority discrimination claims. And, most significantly, the 7th Circuit ruled last year in the case of Ashton Whitaker, a transgender boy, that Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause required a school district to allow him to use boys’ restroom and locker room facilities. There is no material distinction between the Whitaker and Grimm cases.
Furthermore, and closer to home, on March 12 of this year U.S. District Judge George L. Russell, III, ruled in a case from Maryland (also in the 4th Circuit) that a school district had violated Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause by refusing to allow a transgender boy to use the boys’ locker room at his high school. Judge Allen found Judge Russell’s analysis persuasive, as she did the recent cases from other courts.
Turning to Grimm’s constitutional claim, Judge Allen followed the precedents from other courts that have determined that discrimination against transgender people is subject to “heightened scrutiny” judicial review, similar to that used for sex discrimination cases. Under this standard, the challenged policy is presumed to be unconstitutional and the government bears the burden of showing that it substantially advances an important governmental interest.
The Gloucester School District argued that its interest in protecting the privacy of other students was sufficient to vindicate its policy, but Judge Allen disagreed, finding that “the policy at issue was not substantially related to protecting other students’ privacy rights. There were many other ways to protect privacy interests in a non-discriminatory and more effective manner than barring Mr. Grimm from using the boys’ restrooms.” The school had created three single-user restrooms open to all students, so any student who sought to avoid using a common restroom with Mr. Grimm had only to use one of those. She also noted that the School Board reacted to the controversy by taking steps “to give all students the option for even greater privacy by installing partitions between urinals and privacy strips for stall doors.” Thus, any validity to privacy concerns raised when the controversy first arose had been substantially alleviated as a result of these renovations.
Having denied the School District’s motion to dismiss the amended complaint, Judge Allen directed the attorneys to contact the Courtroom Deputy for United States Magistrate Judges within thirty days to schedule a settlement conference. If the parties can’t work out a settlement with a magistrate judge, the district court will issue a final order dictating what the school district must do to be in compliance with Title IX and the Constitution. And, because Grimm is the prevailing party in this long-running and hotly litigated civil rights case, one suspects that sometime down the road there will be a substantial attorneys’ fee award.
Grimm’s lawyer, Joshua Block of the ACLU LGBTQ Rights Project, indicated that their goal in the case at this point is the declaratory judgment and nominal damages for Grimm, and of course an end to the School Board’s discriminatory policy. Grimm now lives in Berkeley, California, and intends to begin college this fall in the Bay Area, according to the New York Times’ report on the case.
Of course, the School District may seek to appeal Judge Allen’s Order to the 4th Circuit. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a Memorandum last fall formally rejecting the Obama Administration’s position that federal sex discrimination laws forbid gender identity discrimination, so the School District could count on the Justice Department to support an appeal. And Trump’s rapid pace in filling federal circuit court vacancies may slow or eventually halt the continuing trend of transgender-positive rulings from the other circuit courts, but that is not likely to be the case in the 4th Circuit for some time. At present that court has an overwhelming majority of Democratic appointees (including six by Obama and four by Clinton on the 15 member court) with only one vacancy for Trump to fill. The 4th Circuit was out front of the Supreme Court in 2014 in striking down state bans on same-sex marriage, and its 2016 opinion in Gavin Grimm’s case was notably transgender-friendly, so it is unlikely that an appeal by the School District will be successful in the 4th Circuit. The Supreme Court, of course, may be a different matter. Time will tell.
Federal Court Refuses to Enjoin School District from Allowing Transgender Students to Use Facilities Consistent With Their Gender Identity
After rendering a bench ruling in mid-August in anticipation of the approaching resumption of school for the fall semester, U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith released a lengthy opinion (running over 75 pages in LEXIS) on August 25, explaining why he was denying a preliminary injunction motion by plaintiffs in Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 137317, 2017 WL 3675418 (E.D. Pa.), in which the plaintiffs, cisgender students and their parents, sought to block the school district’s unwritten policy of allowing transgender students to use bathroom and changing room facilities consistent with their gender identity.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a non-profit law firm self-identified with conservative Christian principles which has filed similar lawsuits against other school districts, represents the plaintiffs in arguing that constitutional and common law privacy rights of the students are violated by the school district’s policy. In addition to local attorneys representing the school district, intervenors on behalf of defendants are represented by attorneys from the ACLU’s LGBT Rights Project and ACLU of Pennsylvania with cooperating attorneys from Cozen O’Connor’s New York and Philadelphia offices.
This case presents in many respects a mirror image of the lawsuits brought by transgender teens seeking the right to use bathroom and changing facilities at their high schools consistent with their gender identity. In both kinds of cases, testimony is presented that the plaintiffs have suffered emotional and physical harm because the schools’ usage policy interferes with their ability to use a convenient, non-stigmatizing restroom when they need it. In this case, cisgender students affirmed that they were so traumatized at the prospect of encountering a “student of the other sex” – as they insist on calling transgender students – in the restroom or locker room, that they avoid using the facilities altogether during the school day, and the fear of such encounters haunts them throughout the day. The court rejected the underlying premise, because Boyertown Area High School (referred to by the acronym BASH throughout the opinion) has provided numerous single-user facilities and alternative locations that would accommodate the plaintiffs’ concerns, and has made physical alterations in the common facilities to enhance the ability of individuals to avoid exposing themselves unclothed (fully or partially) to other students. The plaintiffs’ position is to argue that transgender boys are really girls, and transgender girls are really boys, and the traditional of sex-segregated restroom and locker-room facilities most be preserved in order to protect the long-recognized privacy interests of cisgender people. But to the court, the issue for decision in August 2017 had to be based on the facilities available for the upcoming academic year, as to which alterations and additions have changed the situation since the incidents during the 2016-17 school year that gave rise to the lawsuit.
The court sets out the factual allegations in great detail, including findings that this writer – having attended high school in the 1960s – found startling, such as a finding that few of the students at the high school actually use the showers after their gym classes. (When this writer attended high school, showering after gym was mandatory and closely monitored by the coaches, and the required freshman swimming course at his college prohibited students in the class from wearing anything in the pool.) Another startling finding: that the high school, even before the recent renovations, had several single-user restrooms available to students, and not just in the nurse’s and administrative offices, so that any student seeking absolute privacy for their restroom needs could easily avail themselves of such facilities.
This lawsuit can be traced to several instances during the Fall Semester of 2016 when plaintiffs claim to have been startled, abashed, and disturbed to discover students whom they considered to be of the opposite sex in the locker room or restroom, leading them to approach administrators to complain and subsequently to involve their parents in further complaints. The transgender students were in these facilities after having obtained permission from school administrators who had determined that the students had sufficiently transitioned to make it appropriate. The administrators were determining, on a case-by-case basis, the students in question had transitioned sufficiently that it would have been awkward, unsettling, and perhaps even dangerous to them for them to use facilities consistent with the sex originally noted on their birth certificates.
The evidence presented to the court was that transgender students went through a transitional facilities usage period as they were transitioning in their gender presentation, generally preferring the single-user facilities until their transition was far enough along that they would feel more comfortable using facilities consistent with their gender expression and expected their presence would not cause problems. Indeed, there was testimony that when one transgender boy went into the girls’ restroom, he was chased out by the girls, who perceived him a boy and didn’t want him in there! Because surgical transition is not available under established standards of care before age 18, none of the transgender students at the high school had genital surgery, so their transitions were based on puberty-blocking drugs, hormones, grooming and dress. One suspects that parents particularly objected to the presence of transgender girls who still had male genitals in the girls’ facilities, but there were no allegations that any transgender girl was exposing male genitals to the view of others in the common facilities.
When the issue arose and the administrators had to respond to a handful of protesting students and parents, they had long since received the “Dear Colleague” letter sent out by the Obama Administration’s Education and Justice Departments in May 2016, which advised that Title IX required public schools to accommodate transgender students by allowing them to use restrooms consistent with their gender identity and presentation. The Boyertown administrators, who did not seek authorization from the school board prior to problems arising, treated that letter as “the law of the land” and informally extended approval on a case-by-case basis to transgender students seeking permission to use appropriate facilities, a phenomenon which began to surface in that school district prior to the 2016 school year. Not only did they refrain from adopting a formal written policy, but they also refrained from announcing the school’s policy to the student body or parents generally. Thus, it is not surprising that some students were startled to encounter students who they considered to be of the “wrong sex” in their facilities. The response of the administrators to the complaints was the this was the school’s policy and the students should just treat the situation as natural and adjust to it, which some students and their parents found unacceptable.
After the issue blew up during the 2016-2017 school year, the board of education voted 6-3 to back up the administrators, but there was still no formal written policy, and the school actually refused a demand by some parents to produce a written policy. Although the Trump Administration “withdrew” the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title XI, the substitute letter issued in 2017 did not take a firm position on whether Title IX required such accommodations, merely asserting that the matter required further “study” and should be left to state and local officials to decide. The Boyertown administrators decided to continue the policy they were following. This lawsuit was first filed in March 2017, with an amended complaint adding more plaintiffs on April 18.
The complaint asserted claims under the 14th Amendment, Title IX, and Pennsylvania common and statutory law (the Public School Code, which mandates that public schools provide separate facilities for boys and girls). They claimed a substantive due process violation (privacy), hostile environment sex discrimination in violation of Title IX, and Pennsylvania common law invasion of privacy in violation of public policy.
Judge Smith’s opinion thoroughly dissects the plaintiff’s arguments and carefully distinguishes the cases they cite as precedents, taking the perspective that the issue in deciding the motion for preliminary injunction is whether to preserve the status quo (the school district’s current policy of allowing transgender students, with permission given on a case-by-case basis depending upon their stage of transition and gender presentation, to the use the facilities with which they are comfortable), or to upset the status quo by requiring transgender students to restrict themselves to using single-user facilities or those consistent with their sex as identified at birth. There is a strong bias in considering preliminary injunctions in favor of preserving the status quo, so the plaintiffs had a heavy burden to persuade the court that they were likely to prevail on the merits of their claim in an ultimate ruling, and that the status quo policy inflicted real harm on them that would outweigh the harm that halting the policy would impose on the transgender students and the district. As to both of those issues, Judge Smith found that plaintiffs had failed to make their case.
In particular, the school’s alteration and expansion of its facilities had significantly undermined the privacy arguments, and the court easily rejected the contention that the possibility of encountering one of about half a dozen transgender students in a high school with well over a thousand students had created a “hostile environment” for cisgender students. The court also noted that the common law privacy precedents concerned situations where the individual defendants had physically invaded the private space of the plaintiffs. In this case, the individual defendants are school administrators, none of whom had personally invaded the private space of students using restroom and locker room facilities.
Judge Smith devoted a substantial portion of his opinion to recounting expert testimony, presenting a virtual primer on the phenomena of gender identity, gender dysphoria, and transition from a medical and social perspective. The opinion clearly and strongly rejects the plaintiffs’ argument that this case is about boys invading girls’ facilities or vice versa. The tone and detail of the opinion reflect the considerable progress that has been made in educating courts and the public about these issues.
On the plaintiff’s likelihood of ultimately winning their case on the merits, Judge Smith pointed to the most definitive appellate ruling so far on the contested transgender bathroom issue, a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit involving a lawsuit by Ash Whitaker, a transgender student, against the Kenosha (Wisconsin) school district, which the school district asked the Supreme Court to review, coincidentally on the date that Judge Smith released this opinion. No other federal circuit appeals court has issued a ruling on the merits of the constitutional and Title VII claims being put forth on this issue, although the 4th Circuit had in 2016 dictated deference to the Obama Administration’s interpretation in Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit against the Gloucester County (Virginia) school district, only to have that decision vacated by the Supreme Court last spring after the Trump Administration “withdrew” the Obama Administration’s “Dear Colleague” letter. That case is still continuing, now focused on a judicial determination of the merits after the filing of an amended complaint by the ACLU.
Because ADF is on a crusade to defeat transgender-friendly facilities policies, it will most likely seek to appeal this denial of injunctive relief to the 3rd Circuit, which has yet to weigh in directly on the issue, although there are conflicting rulings by district courts within the circuit in lawsuits brought by transgender students. ADF’s first step could be to seek emergency injunctive relief from the Circuit court and, failing that, the Supreme Court (which had during the summer of 2016 granted a stay of the preliminary injunction issued in the Grimm case). If the Supreme Court grants the Kenosha school district’s petition, as seems likely, the underlying legal issues may be decided during its 2017-18 Term, before the Boyertown case gets to a ruling on the merits of plaintiffs’ claims.
Judge Smith was nominated to the district court by President Obama in 2013, winning confirmation from the Senate in 2014. A substantial part of his prior career involved service as a military judge, followed by a period of private practice and then service as a state court judge. In his Senate confirmation vote he received more votes from Republicans than Democrats. The Washington Post reported at the time that Smith was the first Obama judicial nominee to win more Republican than Democratic votes.
On July 26, to the surprise of Defense Department officials and members of the White House staff, Donald Trump transmitted a series of three tweets beginning at 8:55 a.m. announcing a new policy concerning military service by transgender individuals. “After consultation with my Generals and military experts, please be advised that the United States Government will not accept or allow…… ….Transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. Military. Our military must be focused on decisive and overwhelming….. ….victory and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.” This appeared to be a complete reversal of a policy decision made a year earlier by the Defense Department, which after a period of prolonged study that included a report commissioned from the RAND Corporation (a “think-tank” that specializes in producing studies on defense-related issues by contract with the DoD) and widespread consultations within the military and with military allies that allow transgender individuals to serve had concluded to rescind an existing regulation that established a ban on service by transgendered individuals on purported medical grounds. As a result of the policy newly announced during June 2016, hundreds of transgender service members “came out” to their superior officers, and some service members who had been concealing their gender identity for years began the process of transition with the assurance that the costs would be covered under military health policies. Estimates of the number of transgender service members ranged from a few thousand as high as 15,000, most of whom have not yet made their presence known to their commanding officers. This unknown group likely includes many officers as well as enlisted personnel.
Attempts to discern details of the new policy were at first unsuccessful because neither the usual sources in the White House nor the Pentagon had received any advance notice or details. Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Commandant of the Coast Guard, immediately announced that the Coast Guard would not “abandon” its several openly-transgender members, and that he and his staff had reached out to reassure them. The other military service heads and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff quickly announced that there would be no change of policy until some formal directive came from the Office of the President. A spontaneous presidential tweet was not deemed by the Pentagon to be an order to abandon an existing published policy. The White House finally issued a document titled “Presidential Memorandum for the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of Homeland Security” on August 25, signed by President Trump, directing a series of steps that appeared to fall far short of the draconian July 26 tweets.
After a paragraph summarizing what had been done the previous summer and noting that the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security had extended a July 1, 2017, date for allowing transgender people to join the military to January 1, 2018, the President stated his reasoning: “In my judgment, the previous Administration failed to identify a sufficient basis to conclude that terminating the Departments’ longstanding policy and practice would not hinder military effectiveness and lethality, disrupting unit cohesion, or tax military resources, and there remain meaningful concerns that further study is needed to ensure that continued implementation of last year’s policy change would not have those negative effects.” This was stated in blithe disregard of the fact that over the past year transgender military service members, in reliance on the announced policy change, had come out to their commanders by the hundreds and that there was no evidence during that time of any adverse effect on military operations or unit cohesion, or of significant strain on the military’s budget attributable to this policy change. There has been no reporting that military commanders had asked to abandon the policy allowing transgender individuals to serve, and there has been no reporting that either Trump or members of his staff have actually reviewed the voluminous materials generated by the review process undertaken by the DoD prior to announcing its change of policy in June 2016, or were reacting to actual data indicating problems over the past year (since there have not been reports of any such problems).
After invoking the president’s powers as Commander in Chief, the Memorandum continues, “I am directing the Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of Homeland Security with respect to the U.S. Coast Guard, to return to the longstanding policy and practice on military service by transgender individuals that was in place prior to June 2016 until such time as a sufficient basis exists upon which to conclude that terminating that policy and practice would not have the negative effects discussed above. The Secretary of Defense, after consulting with the Secretary of Homeland Security, may advise me at any time, in writing, that a change to this policy is warranted.”
The Memorandum then sets out specific “directives,” apparently intended to be the operative provisions of the Memorandum. First is to “maintain the currently effective policy regarding accession of transgender individuals into military service beyond January 1, 2018, until such time as the Secretary of Defense, after consulting with the Secretary of Homeland Security, provides a recommendation to the contrary that I find convincing.” In other words, the existing ban on enlisting transgender individuals will continue indefinitely, but can be ended when the Secretary of Defense convinces the president to end it. Second is to “halt all use of DoD or DHS resources to fund sex reassignment surgical procedures for military personnel, except to the extent necessary to protect the health of an individual who has already begun a course of treatment to reassign his or her sex.” Interestingly, this directive mentions only “sex reassignment surgical procedures” but not any of the other costs associated with gender transition, including hormone treatment, which may reflect either ignorance by the White House staffers who drafted the Memorandum or a deliberate intention to make the exclusion as narrow as possible, focusing only on the political “flashpoint” of surgery. The Memorandum states that this second directive about surgical expenses will take effect on March 23, 2018. In other words, transgender individuals currently serving will continue to be covered for sex reassignment surgical procedures at least until March 23, 2018, and continuing beyond then if cutting off coverage on that date interferes with completing surgical procedures already under way. Or at least, that’s what it appears to say.
Third, in the section titled “effective dates and implementation,” the Memorandum gives the Secretary of Defense until February 21, 2018, to submit to the president a “plan for implementing both the general policy set forth in section 1(b) of this memorandum and the specific directives set forth in section 2 of this memorandum. The implementation plan shall adhere to the determinations of the Secretary of Defense, made in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, as to what steps are appropriate and consistent with military effectiveness and lethality, budgetary constraints, and applicable law. As part of the implementation plan, the Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, shall determine how to address transgender individuals currently serving in the United States military. Until the Secretary has made that determination, no action may be taken against such individuals under the policy set forth in section 1(b) of this memorandum.” The Memorandum also has a severability provision, the usual disclaimers accompanying presidential directives about not creating new rights or changing the authority of any government departments or agencies, and permission to the Secretary to publish the Memorandum in the Federal Register. (It was made immediately available on the White House website.)
On a plain reading, the “effective dates and implementation” section appears to mark a substantial retreat from the absolutist tone of the July 26 tweets. In trying to construe the tweets, there had been speculation that transgender service members would be immediately discharged or pressured to resign in order to avoid discharge. Leaks from the White House while staff members were working on a written guidance for the president to sign led to reports that transgender enlisted personnel would be allowed to serve out their enlistments but then be denied reenlistment while being encouraged to resign earlier, and that transgender officers could continue to serve their commissions but would be required to resign if being considered for promotions.
Based on the leaks, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), the Boston-based New England public interest law firm, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), based in San Francisco, with cooperating attorneys from Foley Hoag LLP and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr LLP, filed a lawsuit on August 9 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, representing five “Jane Doe” plaintiffs, all presently serving transgender individuals, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. Doe v. Trump, Case 1:17-cv-01597. The plaintiffs, with varying lengths of service, present compelling stories about the harms the proposed policy would have on them, based, of course, on what was known when the complaint was filed. Among them, of course, were interference with ongoing transitions, interference with attaining military pensions (which some were close to vesting), and loss of career and benefits, affecting not only the plaintiffs but their family members as well. There was also the emotional stress generated by uncertainty about their future employment and welfare.
The three-count complaint asserts violations of equal protection and due process (Fifth Amendment) and invokes the doctrine of estoppel to prevent adverse moves against the plaintiffs and those similarly situated as presently serving transgender members of the military who had been encouraged to “come out” as transgender under the earlier policy. The named defendants, in addition to the president, are Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., the Departments of the Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard, Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy, Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson, Homeland Security Secretary Elaine C. Duke, and, for good measure, THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. There was some speculation and criticism that filing the lawsuit before a formal policy was announced or implemented was premature and might result in a dismissal on grounds of standing or ripeness, but the release of the formal guidance just a few weeks after the suit was filed will undoubtedly lead to the filing of an amended complaint focusing more specifically at the changes announced in the Memorandum. The lengthy delay specified by the Memorandum for implementing changes may be invoked by the Justice Department in seeking to get this case dismissed. Perhaps the Memorandum was drafted with this strategic use in mind.
Press coverage of the July 26 tweets showed overwhelming opposition and criticism from media, many government officials, and members of both parties in Congress. Those who voiced support of the president’s announcement came from the House Republicans who had waged a losing battle to amend a pending Defense budget measure to ban use of any appropriations to pay for sex reassignment surgery for military members, and there were soon press reports that supporters of that amendment had specifically asked the president to take steps to prevent spending federal funds for this purpose. Furthermore, it was reported that threats had been made to block passage of the Defense measure – which was intended to provide some funding for the president’s project to “build the wall” along the U.S. border with Mexico (reflecting his ignorance of world history, and most specifically of the spectacular failure of the vaunted “Maginot Line” constructed after World War I to protect France from any future invasion by German military forces) – unless the president prevented military expenditures on sex reassignment procedures. To the simple-minded president, the solution was obvious. Reviving a ban on all military service by transgender individuals meant that there would be no openly transgender individuals in the military seeking to have such procedures performed and, since reversing Obama Administration policies regardless of their merits seems to be the main goal of many of Trump’s actions, simply overturning the Obama Administration policy became his simplistic solution to his political problem. There was no indication that Trump made this decision after consulting “my Generals” or military experts – at least, the White House never revealed the names of any such individuals who were consulted, and it appeared that Secretary Mattis had merely been informed of the president’s intentions the night before the tweets. One suspects that Trump’s “expert” was likely Steve Bannon, a former Marine.
The August 25 Memorandum did not require the immediate, or even eventual, discharge of anybody, and appeared to give Secretary Mattis wide discretion to come up with an implementing plan and at least six months to do it, while barring any action against transgender service members during the intervening time. Furthermore, in typical “kick the can down the road” Trump style (which is, admittedly, a typical style of U.S. politicians generally, only more pronounced in this president), it leaves open the possibility that the Obama Administration policies will be left in place, provided Mattis asks for this in writing summoning persuasive evidence that nothing is gained and much is lost by preventing transgender individuals from enlisting or being commissioned out of the service academies or by blocking transgender service members (including commissioned officers) from continuing their service. Press accounts noted that the anticipated expense of covering sex reassignment surgery was dwarfed by the annual military expenditure on Viagra and similar drugs (Who knew, as Trump might ask, that the Defense Department, the government’s most “macho” agency, was spending so much money to stiffen the limp genitals of male members?), and that the replacement costs for several thousand fully-trained and productive military members would far outweigh the costs of down-time for the relatively small number of individuals at any given time who might be unavailable for assignment while recovering from sex reassignment surgery. (There is no indication that the other steps in gender transition, including hormone therapy, are disabling in a way that would interfere with military service.)
As worded, the Memorandum leant itself to the interpretation that with the passage of time, as the immediate political problem that “inspired” Trump to emit his tweets had been surmounted, sober heads could prevail, Mattis could reassure the transgender troops that nothing was happening right away, and eventually the president would accept Mattis’s written recommendation to allow transgender individuals to serve after all. (This interpretation depends on Mattis having the fortitude and political courage to tell the president, as he had done during the transition after the election on the subject of torture as an interrogation device, that Trump’s announced position did not make sense as a matter of military policy.) Of course, the Memorandum directive means continuing discrimination against transgender individuals who seek to enlist, raising serious constitutional issues in light of the increasing recognition by federal courts that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination in equal protection doctrine, but the Memorandum, as it plays out, could avoid the loss of employment for transgender individuals now serving, although it would pose continuing emotional stress stemming from the uncertainty of future developments until Mattis convinces the president to countermand his new “policy.”
When the GLAD/NCLR suit was filed, other organizations, including Lambda Legal and ACLU, announced that they would be preparing lawsuits as well, and the release of the Memorandum on August 25 led to immediate announcements that more lawsuits will be filed. “See you in court,” wrote ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero to the organization’s supporters. As with other “bold” executive actions by Trump, this anti-transgender initiative may be stopped in its tracks by preliminary injunctions, although the Memorandum was evidently drafted to try to minimize that likelihood by suggesting that nothing much is going to happen right away other than the continuing ban on enlistment. As to the enlistment ban, it is questionable that the original GLAD/NCLR plaintiffs, all currently serving members, have standing to challenge it, but one expects that an amended complaint would add as plaintiffs some transgender individuals who hope to enlist.
On August 2, the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals announced that instead of holding oral argument in Gavin Grimm’s lawsuit challenging the Gloucester County School Board’s bathroom access policy, it was sending the case back to the district court for a determination whether Grimm’s recent graduation from high school made the case moot. Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 14158. The three-judge panel had tentatively scheduled an oral argument for September to consider yet again whether U.S. District Judge Robert G. Doumar erred when he dismissed Grimm’s Title IX sex discrimination claim against the Gloucester County School Board. The circuit panel speculated that its jurisdiction to decide the case may have been ended by Grimm’s graduation, but that it was not clear from the record before the court and the supplemental briefs filed by the parties earlier this summer whether this is so, and the court concluded that more fact-finding is necessary before the issue of its jurisdiction can be decided.
Grimm’s mother filed suit on his behalf against the school board in July 2015, during the summer before his junior year, alleging that the Board’s policy of requiring students to use restrooms based on their biological sex rather than their gender identity violated Grimm’s right to be free of sex discrimination protected under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The Board moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Title IX did not apply to this dispute and that its action did not violate the Constitution. Judge Doumar ruled on September 17, 2015, in favor of the Board’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim, reserved judgment on the 14th Amendment claim, and denied Grimm’s motion for a preliminary injunction to allow him to use the boys’ bathrooms as he appealed the dismissal. While the case was pending before Judge Doumar, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice filed a joint statement with the court supporting Grimm’s claim that barring him from using the boys’ bathrooms violated the ban on sex discrimination.
Ruling on Grimm’s appeal of the dismissal on April 19, 2016, the 4th Circuit focused on the document issued by the federal agencies, finding that the district court should have deferred to their interpretation of the Title IX regulations, finding it to be a reasonable interpretation of the regulations. The court reversed Judge Doumar’s dismissal of the Title IX claim, and sent the case back to Doumar to reconsider Grimm’s request for a preliminary injunction. Reacting to the Circuit’s decision, Doumar issued a preliminary injunction on June 23, 2016, too late to get Grimm access to the boys’ bathrooms during his junior year but potentially ensuring that he could use appropriate bathrooms at the high school during his senior year. But that was not to be. Even though Judge Doumar and the 4th Circuit refused to stay the preliminary injunction while the case was on appeal, the School Board successfully petitioned the Supreme Court for a stay while it prepared to file a petition to have the Supreme Court review the 4th Circuit’s ruling. Thus, as the 2016-17 school year began, Grimm was still barred from using the boys’ bathrooms at his high school.
The Supreme Court subsequently granted the Board’s petition to review the 4th Circuit’s decision, continuing the stay of the preliminary injunction, and scheduled an oral argument to take place on March 28, 2017. Meanwhile, Donald Trump was elected president, took office in January, 2017, and appointed Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General and Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of Education. Sessions and DeVos disagreed with the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX, and on February 22 announced that the Departments of Education and Justice were “withdrawing” the document that had been submitted to the district court and, in effect, taking no position at that time on the appropriate interpretation of Title IX, instead stating that the question of bathroom access in public schools should be decided by the states and localities, not the federal government. The Supreme Court reacted to this development by cancelling the oral argument, vacating the 4th Circuit’s decision, and sending the case back to the 4th Circuit to address the merits of Grimm’s appeal as a matter of judicial interpretation of the relevant statutory and regulatory provisions, there no longer being an executive branch interpretation to which the court need defer. The 4th Circuit tentatively scheduled an argument to be held in September, but then, after Grimm graduated in June, the parties filed supplemental briefs to update the court on what had happened since it last considered the case.
The School Board argued that the case had become moot because Grimm had graduated. “The School Board argues that, absent any allegation of a ‘particular intention to return to school after graduation,’ this change of status deprives Grimm of a continued interest in the litigation, rendering the case moot,” wrote the court in its brief order issued on August 2. “The School Board states further that its bathroom policy does not necessarily apply to alumni, and that the issue of whether the policy is applicable to alumni is not yet ripe for adjudication.” Grimm responded that it was enough that his possible “future attendance at alumni and school-community events” at the high school gave him a continuing concrete interest in obtaining the injunctive relief he was seeking in this lawsuit. He also pointed out that the School Board’s “noncommittal statement” that the policy did “not necessarily apply” to alumni “falls short of a representation that the Board will voluntarily cease discriminating against” him.
The court does not have jurisdiction of the case unless there is an “actual case or controversy” between the parties. The Supreme Court has established that this means that the plaintiff, Grimm, must have a concrete interest in the outcome, which would mean that the policy he is challenging must actually affect him personally. “Thus,” wrote the court, “a crucial threshold question arises in this appeal whether ‘one or both of the parties plainly lack a continuing interest’ in the resolution of this case such that it has become moot.” The court decided that “the facts on which our jurisdiction could be decided are not in the record before us.” The factual record in this case consists of the sworn allegations that were presented to the district court back in 2015 when it was ruling on the Board’s motion to dismiss the case, when Grimm was but a rising junior at the high school. The parties’ assertions in their briefs are just that: merely argumentative assertions, not sworn statements of fact or actual testimony submitted in court. Thus, the 4th Circuit panel decided it was necessary to send the case back to the district court for “factual development of the record by the district court and possibly additional jurisdictional discovery.” They are not sending the case back for a new ruling on the merits, just for a ruling on the question of mootness after additional fact-finding. Any determination by Judge Doumar that the case is moot could, of course, be appealed by Grimm, so final resolution of this case may still take some time, and it is possible that the courts will resolve the mootness issue against the Board.
If the mootness issue is decided in Grimm’s favor and the case returns to the 4th Circuit for a ruling on whether the Title IX claim was appropriately dismissed, it may yet provide a vehicle for the ACLU LGBT Right Project and the ACLU Foundation of Virginia, which represent Grimm, to get this issue back before the Supreme Court, although if they are ultimately successful in the 4th Circuit, that would depend on the School Board persisting in seeking Supreme Court review. However, this issue is being litigated in other places, in some cases involving elementary school students, and it is possible that one of the other cases will get far enough along to knock at the Supreme Court’s door long before the plaintiff has graduated. Indeed, while this litigation drama was unfolding in Gloucester County, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on May 30 in Whitaker v. Kenosha Unified School District No. 1 Board of Education, 858 F.3d 1034, that Title IX prohibits a public school from refusing to let transgender students use bathrooms appropriate for their gender identity, so the issue has percolated further elsewhere in the country. It seems only a matter of time before it gets to the Supreme Court, regardless of what the Trump Administration may say about the issue, unless Congress intervenes by amending Title IX, an outcome that is unlikely unless the Senate Republicans abolish the filibuster rule for ordinary legislation, as Trump has been asking them to do, so far without success.
Lambda Legal has announced that it will petition the Supreme Court to decide whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans employment discrimination because of sex, also bans discrimination because of sexual orientation. Lambda made the announcement on July 6, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, based in Atlanta, announced that the full circuit court would not reconsider a decision by a three-judge panel that had ruled on March 10 against such a claim in a lawsuit by Jameka K. Evans, a lesbian security guard who was suing Georgia Regional Hospital for sexual orientation discrimination.
The question whether Title VII can be interpreted to cover sexual orientation claims got a big boost several months ago when the full Chicago-based 7th Circuit ruled that a lesbian academic, Kimberly Hively, could sue an Indiana community college for sexual orientation discrimination under the federal sex discrimination law, overruling prior panel decisions from that circuit. The 7th Circuit was the first federal appeals court to rule in favor of such coverage. Lambda Legal represented Hively in her appeal to the 7th Circuit.
Title VII, adopted in 1964 as part of the federal Civil Rights Act, did not even include sex as a prohibited ground of discrimination in the bill that came to the floor of the House of Representatives for debate. The primary focus of the debate was race discrimination. But a Virginia representative, Howard Smith, an opponent of the bill, introduced a floor amendment to add sex. The amendment was approved by an odd coalition of liberals and conservatives, the former out of a desire to advance employment rights for women, many of the later hoping that adding sex to the bill would make it too controversial to pass. However, the amended bill was passed by the House and sent to the Senate, where a lengthy filibuster delayed a floor vote for months before it passed without much discussion about the meaning of the inclusion of sex as a prohibited ground for employment discrimination. (The sex amendment did not apply to other parts of the bill, and the employment discrimination title is the only part of the 1964 Act that outlaws sex discrimination.)
Within a few years both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and federal courts had issued decisions rejecting discrimination claims from LGBT plaintiffs, holding that Congress did not intend to address homosexuality or transsexualism (as it was then called) in this law. The judicial consensus against coverage did not start to break down until after the Supreme Court’s 1989 decision on Ann Hopkin’s sex discrimination lawsuit against Price Waterhouse. The accounting firm had denied her partnership application. The Court accepted her argument that sex stereotyping had infected the process, based on sexist comments by partners of the firm concerning her failure to conform to their image of a proper “lady partner.”
Within a few years, litigators began to persuade federal judges that discrimination claims by transgender plaintiffs also involved sex stereotyping. By definition a transgender person does not conform to stereotypes about their sex as identified at birth, and by now a near consensus has emerged among the federal courts of appeals that discrimination because of gender identity or expression is a form of sex discrimination under the stereotype theory. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission changed its position as well, following the lead of some of the court decisions, in 2012.
Advocates for gay plaintiffs also raised the stereotype theory, but with mixed success. Most federal circuit courts were unwilling to accept it unless the plaintiff could show that he or she was gender-nonconforming in some obvious way, such as effeminacy in men or masculinity (akin to the drill sergeant demeanor of Ann Hopkins) in women. The courts generally rejected the argument that to have a homosexual or bisexual orientation was itself a violation of employer’s stereotypes about how men and women were supposed to act, and some circuit courts, including the New York-based 2nd Circuit, had ruled that if sexual orientation was the “real reason” for discrimination, a Title VII claim must fail, even if the plaintiff was gender nonconforming. Within the past few years, however, several district court and the EEOC have accepted the stereotype argument and other arguments insisting that discrimination because of sexual orientation is always, as a practical matter, about the sex of the plaintiff. This year, for the first time, a federal appeals court, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit, did so in the Hively case. A split among the circuits about the interpretation of a federal statute is listed by the Supreme Court in its practice rules as the kind of case it is likely to accept for review.
The Supreme Court has been asked in the past to consider whether Title VII could be interpreted to cover sexual orientation and gender identity claims, but it has always rejected the invitation, leaving in place the lower court rulings.
However, last year the Court signaled its interest in the question whether sex discrimination, as such, includes gender identity discrimination, when it agreed to review a ruling by the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the district court should not have dismissed a sex-discrimination claim by Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student, under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination by schools that get federal money. The 4th Circuit held in Grimm’s case that the district court should have deferred to an interpretation of the Title IX regulations by the Obama Administration’s Department of Education, which had decided to follow the lead of the EEOC and federal courts in Title VII cases and accept the sex stereotyping theory for gender identity discrimination claims. Shortly before the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments in this case, however, the Trump Administration “withdrew” the Obama Administration interpretation, pulling the rug out from under the 4th Circuit’s decision. The Supreme Court then canceled the argument and sent the case back to the 4th Circuit, where an argument has been scheduled for this fall on the question whether Title IX applies in the absence of such an executive branch interpretation.
Meanwhile, the Title VII issue has been percolating in many courts around the country. Here in New York, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has had several recent panel decisions in which the judges have refused to allow sexual orientation discrimination claims because they are bound by earlier decisions of the court to reject them, although in some cases they have said that the gay plaintiff could maintain their Title VII case if they could show gender nonconforming behavior sufficient to evoke the stereotype theory. In one of these cases, the chief judge of the circuit wrote a concurring opinion, suggesting that it was time for the Circuit to reconsider the issue by the full court. In another of these cases, Zarda v. Altitude Express, the court recently granted a petition for reconsideration by the full bench, appellants’ briefs and amicus briefs were filed late in June, and oral argument has been scheduled for September 26. The EEOC as well as many LGBT rights and civil liberties organizations and the attorneys general of the three states in the circuit have filed amicus briefs, calling on the 2nd Circuit to follow the 7th Circuit’s lead on this issue.
This sets up an interesting dynamic between the 11th Circuit case, Evans, and the 2nd Circuit case, Zarda. Lambda’s petition for certiorari (the technical term for seeking Supreme Court review) is due to be filed by 90 days after the denial of its rehearing petition by the 11th Circuit, which would put it early in October, shortly after the 2nd Circuit’s scheduled argument in Zarda. After Lambda files its petition, the Respondent, Georgia Regional Hospital (perhaps, as a public hospital, represented by the state attorney general’s office), will have up to 30 days to file a response, but this is uncertain, since the hospital failed to send an attorney to argue against Evans’ appeal before the 11th Circuit panel. Other interested parties who want the Supreme Court to take or reject this case may filed amicus briefs as well. If Lambda uses all or virtually all of its 90 days to prepare and file its petition, the Supreme Court would most likely not announce whether it will take the case until late October or November. If it takes the case, oral argument would most likely be held early in 2018, with an opinion expected by the end of the Court’s term in June.
That leaves the question whether the 2nd Circuit will move expeditiously to decide the Zarda case? Legal observers generally believe that the 2nd Circuit is poised to change its position and follow the 7th Circuit in holding that sexual orientation claims can be litigated under Title VII, but the circuit judges might deem it prudent to hold up until the Supreme Court rules on the Evans petition and, if that petition is granted, the 2nd Circuit might decide to put off a ruling until after the Supreme Court rules. In that case, there will be no change in the 2nd Circuit’s position until sometime in the spring of 2018, which would be bad news for litigants in the 2nd Circuit. Indeed, some district judges in the Circuit are clearly champing at the bit to be able to decide sexual orientation discrimination claims under Title VII, and two veteran judges have bucked the circuit precedent recently, refusing to dismiss sexual orientation cases, arguing that the 2nd Circuit’s precedents are outmoded. A few years ago the 2nd Circuit accepted the argument in a race discrimination case that an employer violated Title VII by discriminating against a person for engaging in a mixed-race relationship, and some judges see this as supporting the analogous argument that discriminating against somebody because they are attracted to a person of the same-sex is sex discrimination.
The 2nd Circuit has in the past moved to rule quickly on an LGBT issue in a somewhat similar situation. In 2012, cases were moving up through the federal courts challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had been held unconstitutional by several district courts. A race to the Supreme Court was emerging between cases from Boston (1st Circuit), New York (2nd Circuit), and San Francisco (9th Circuit). The Supreme Court received a petition to review the 1st Circuit case, where GLAD represented the plaintiffs. The ACLU, whose case on behalf of Edith Windsor was pending before the 2nd Circuit, filed a petition with the Supreme Court seeking to leapfrog the district court and bring the issue directly up to the highest court. After the ACLU filed its petition, the 2nd Circuit moved quickly to issue a decision, and the Supreme Court granted the petition. Meanwhile, Lambda Legal, representing the plaintiff whose case was pending in the 9th Circuit, had filed its own petition asking the Supreme Court to grant review before the 9th Circuit decided that appeal. It was all a bit messy, but ultimately the Court granted the ACLU’s petition and held the other petitions pending its ultimate decision, announced on June 26, 2013, declaring DOMA unconstitutional. If the 2nd Circuit moves quickly, it might be able to turn out an opinion before the Supreme Court has announced whether it will review the Evans case, as it did in 2012 in the DOMA case (although that was just a panel decision, not a ruling by the full circuit bench.) The timing might be just right for that.
Another concern, of course, is the composition of the Supreme Court bench when this issue is to be decided. At present, the five justices who made up the majority in the DOMA and marriage equality cases are still on the Court, but three of them, Justices Anthony Kennedy (who wrote those opinions), Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer, are the three oldest justices, and there have been rumors about Kennedy considering retirement. Donald Trump’s first appointee to the Court, Neil Gorsuch, filling the seat previously occupied by arch-homophobe Antonin Scalia, immediately showed his own anti-LGBT colors with a disingenuous dissenting opinion issued on June 26 in a case from Arkansas involving birth certificates for the children of lesbian couples, and it seems likely that when or if Trump gets another appointment, he will appoint a person of similar views. Kennedy, who turns 81 this month, has not made a retirement announcement and has hired a full roster of court clerks for the October 2017 Term, so it seems likely he intends to serve at least one more year. There is no indication that Ginsburg, 84, or Breyer, 79 in August, plan to retire, but given the ages of all three justices, nothing is certain.
The seven-member Nebraska Supreme Court has unanimously affirmed a decision by Lancaster County District Judge John A. Colborn that a formal published policy adopted by the state in 1995 banning adoptions or foster placements into any household with a “homosexual” in residence was unconstitutional, as was an informal policy adopted more recently by chief executive officers of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services under which “exceptions” could be made in particular cases by personal order of the department’s director.
Ruling on a case brought by the ACLU on behalf of some same-sex couples who sought to foster or adopt children but were either discouraged by Department staff members or deterred by the formal policy posted on the Department’s website, Stewart v. Heineman, 296 Neb. 262, the Supreme Court focused mainly on technical issues, as the state apparently conceded that there was no good reason to single out gay and lesbian adults for discriminatory treatment and sought to persuade the court that the case was “moot” and should be dismissed, preferably without awarding costs and fees to the plaintiffs. The trial judge awarded costs and fees totaling more than $175,000, an amount that will increase if fees are later awarded to the plaintiffs for successfully defending their victory in the state supreme court.
The lengthy opinion by Justice John F. Wright is devoted almost entirely to refuting ridiculous arguments mounted by the state to try to convince the court that it lacked jurisdiction to decide the case, rather than to repeating in any detail the evidence presented to the district court about the parenting abilities of lesbians and gay men and the wholesome, well-adjusted children they have raised when given the opportunity to do so.
The complaint the ACLU filed centered on Memo 1-95, an administrative memorandum written by the director of the Department of Social Services (which later became the Department of Health and Human Services) in 1995. The memo stated: “It is my decision that effective immediately, it is the policy of the Department of Social Services that children will not be placed in the homes of persons who identify themselves as homosexuals. This policy also applies to the area of foster home licensure in that, effective immediately, no foster home license shall be issued to persons who identify themselves as homosexuals.” The memo adopted a similar policy regarding “unmarried heterosexual couples.” The memo “directed staff not to specifically ask about an individual’s sexual orientation or marital status beyond those inquiries already included in the licensing application and home study,” wrote Justice Wright. “The stated reason for the policy was this State’s intent to place children in the most ‘family-like setting’ when out-of-home care is necessary,” Wright continued. The memo contemplated that a formal regulation incorporating its policy decisions would be adopted, but this did not happen.
In fact, there is no formal statutory or regulatory ban on gay people being foster or adoptive parents in Nebraska, as such. Thus, the entire focus of the lawsuit and the court opinions was on the “policy” expressed in Memo 1-95 and subsequent “practices” adopted by the director of the department.
The Memo was posted on the Department’s website as a formal policy statement, and was not removed from the website until after this lawsuit began and motions for summary judgment had been filed with Judge Colborn. The Memo was used in training new staff members, and was referred to specifically by staff members when they discouraged one of the couples from formally applying to get a foster child, which is a prerequisite in Nebraska to legal adoption.
Part of the state’s defense in this case was that although Memo 1-95 continued to appear on the website, it was no longer the actual policy of the Department, as recent chief executive officers had determined that lesbian and gay applicants otherwise qualified to serve as foster or adoptive parents should be allowed to do so. However, this informal policy was not well publicized throughout the department, formal instructions were not issued at the line staff level, and no mechanism for appealing denials based on an applicant’s sexual orientation was created.
Under this “practice,” which was referred to throughout the opinion as the Pristow Procedure, after Thomas Pristow, director of the Division beginning in March 2012, if gay applicants were approved at the line staff level, the approval had to go through four layers of sign-offs, including by Pristow himself. No other potentially controversial placements, such as those with unmarried heterosexual parents or with former prison inmates, had to go through so many layers of approval, and only placements with “homosexuals” had to be personally approved by the director.
An earlier form of this policy “exception” was first adopted by Todd Reckling when he was director in June 2010, expressed in a letter to two gay men, Todd Vesely and Joel Busch, who had begun the process of qualifying to be foster and adoptive parents in 2008, completing the training program. Reckling wrote them that the division’s policy was to bar licensing unrelated adults living together, referring to Memo 1-95, but that the division’s policy “allows for an exception” under which one member of an unmarried couple might be licensed, but Reckling’s letter “gave no indication that such an exception would be made in their case” because, as Reckling explained, “second parent adoptions” were not permitted in Nebraska involving unmarried couples, and Todd and Joel could not marry because of Nebraska’s anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. Neither would their marriage be recognized if contracted out of state.
One of the state’s incredible arguments was that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuit because none of the couples had formally applied and been turned down. This was a nonsensical argument, since it was clear that any gay couple applying had to be rejected under the formal policy posted on the website and taught to staff members. In reviewing the deposition testimony of the various directors of the division and other staff members, as well as their internal written communications, the court uncovered the entire history of developments within the department as this issue unfolded. When pressed about why Memo 1-95 remained for so long on the website despite insistence by some of the witnesses that it was no longer the “practice” of the division, witnesses intimated that they wanted to prevent the possibility that a formal withdrawal of the memo would provoke the state legislature to pass an explicit ban on “homosexuals” serving as foster or adoptive parents, as had happened in some other states when the issue aroused public attention.
The defense witnesses struggled to define the difference between a “policy” and a “practice,” and to argue that because the complaint filed in this case only explicitly attacked 1-95 as a “policy,” the court should not consider whether the “practice” actually followed was constitutional. Of course, since the “practice” was never formally published, it turns out that the plaintiffs did not learn of it until after filing their complaint and conducting discovery. The court turned aside formalistic objections to extending the lawsuit to consider the “practice,” and agreed with Judge Colborn that the “practice” as variously described in depositions and internal division communications was itself discriminatory.
The defense witnesses could advance no good reason why approval of gay people to be foster or adoptive parents should require five layers of approval culminating in personal approval by the CEO, a degree of internal scrutiny that was not demanded of any other class of applicants.
The court also rejected the defendants’ argument that the case was not “ripe” for decision because nobody had been turned down under the “practice”, now that the Memo has been removed from the website. Interestingly, however, the opinion does not mention any evidence that any gay foster or adoptive parents have actually been approved. The defendants argued that none of the plaintiffs have yet incurred the injury of formally being denied, so it was premature for the court to rule on the merits. But the court noted plentiful U.S. Supreme Court precedents adopting the view that a denial of equal treatment was itself an injury, even if it was in the form of an official policy that had deterred individuals from applying and thus had not resulted in any formal denials.
Approving the district court’s decision to issue an injunction against the “policy” and the “practice,” Justice Wright quoted from U.S. Supreme Court opinions, that the Court had “repeatedly emphasized” that “discrimination itself, by perpetuating ‘archaic and stereotypic notions’ or by stigmatizing members of the disfavored group as ‘innately inferior’ and therefore as less worthy participants in the political community, can cause serious noneconomic injuries to those persons who are personally denied equal treatment solely because of their membership in a disfavored group.”
As to the “ripeness” issue in the context of a “reverse-discrimination” attack on a governmental affirmative action contracting policy, the Supreme Court has said “that the plaintiffs seeking to prevent future deprivation of the equal opportunity to compete need only demonstrate they will ‘sometime in the relatively near future’ bid on a contracted governed by such race-based financial incentives.”
The court also rejected the state’s contention that the case was “moot” because Memo 1-95 had been removed from the website. The court noted that the Memo had not been formally withdrawn, since it was not included on a website list of withdrawn memoranda, presumably so as not to call the legislature’s attention to its withdrawal.
“If a discriminatory policy is openly declared,” wrote Wright, “then it is unnecessary for a plaintiff to demonstrate it is followed in order to obtain injunctive or declaratory relief. We thus find immaterial any dispute in the record as to whether the Pristow Procedure was a policy versus a practice, whether it ‘replaced’ Memo 1-95, or the level of confusion within DHHS and its contractors concerning DHHS’ policy and practice when this action was filed. A secret change in policy or procedure cannot moot an action based on a published policy statement that has been cited by the agency as excluding the plaintiffs from eligibility.”
Furthermore, the court said that a party cannot “moot” a case “simply by ending its unlawful conduct once sued,” because if such “voluntary cessation” rendered the case “moot”, causing its dismissal, “a defendant could engage in unlawful conduct, stop when sued to have the case declared moot, then pick up where he left off, repeating this cycle until he achieves all his unlawful ends.”
In the final section of his opinion, Justice Wright’s discussion intimated what this appeal is really all about. The state is not actually contesting Judge Colborn’s conclusion that the policy or practice is unconstitutional. Rather, hoping to get the case dismissed as moot, the state wants to be in a position to argue that it should not have to pay court costs and attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs! They argued that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding costs and fees, and should have declared the case moot and dismissed it when the state removed 1-95 from its website. The court wasn’t falling for this sophistry, however.
The April 7 opinion is a total rejection of all the arguments the state raised on appeal, and a total endorsement of Judge Colborn’s summary judgment order of August 5, 2015, which ordered the defendants to “refrain from adopting or applying policies, procedures, or review processes that treat gay and lesbian individuals and couples differently from similarly situated heterosexual individuals and couples when evaluating foster care or adoption applications under the ‘best interests of the child’ standard set forth in DHHS’ regulations.” The district court issued an order on December 15, 2015, awarding $28,849.25 in costs and $145,111.30 in attorney fees.
Lead attorneys for the plaintiffs are Amy Miller of the ACLU of Nebraska, Leslie Cooper of the national ACLU’s LGBT Rights Project, and cooperating attorneys Garrard R. Beeney and W. Rudolph Kleysteuber of Sullivan & Cromwell LLP. Amicus briefs in support of plaintiffs were filed by Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest and the Child Welfare League of America.