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Iowa Judge Strikes Down Medicaid Ban on Sex Reassignment Surgery

Posted on: July 2nd, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

An Iowa trial judge ruled on June 6 that a state regulation prohibiting Medicaid coverage for sex reassignment surgery violates the state’s Civil Rights Act as well as the equal protection requirement of the state’s Constitution. Ruling on appeals by two transgender women who were denied preclearance for the procedures, Polk County District Judge Arthur E. Gamble rejected the state’s argument that the public accommodations law is inapplicable.

Iowa has a rather unusual history with this issue. Back in the 1970s, a transgender woman appealed a denial of benefits for sex reassignment surgery to federal court, winning a ruling from the district court and, in 1980, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that under the federal Medicaid statute, as then written, such surgery was covered under a general category of medically necessary in-patient hospital services.  The federal Medicaid program subsequently adopted policy statements disavowing the 8th Circuit’s approach, purporting to relieve state Medicaid programs from any obligation to cover sex reassignment procedures.  The federal agency backed away from that position during the Obama Administration, taking a neutral stance on what states might cover, although the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits sex discrimination by health care providers, might be construed to require such coverage.  But the Trump Administration now take the position, contrary to the Obama Administration, that gender identity discrimination is not covered under sex discrimination.

In 1991, the Iowa Department of Human Services (DHS), ruling on a similar coverage claim, held that the language of the state’s Medicaid regulations required coverage. This prompted the state to take steps to change the regulatory language.  In 1995, relying on a report prepared by the Iowa Foundation for Medical Care, a non-profit that studies and generates reports on health care policy issues, DHS adopted new regulatory language, explicitly excluding from coverage “procedures related to transsexualism, hermaphroditism, gender identity disorders, or body dysmorphic disorders.”  Also excluded were “breast augmentation mammoplasty, surgical insertion of prosthetic testicles, penile implant procedures, and surgeries for the purpose of sex reassignment.”  This was included with a general ban on cosmetic procedures “performed primarily for psychological reasons or as a result of the aging process.”  The position of DHS in 1995, reiterated in this lawsuit, is that gender identity is entirely a psychological issue.

Although the 1995 Regulation has been reviewed by the agency numerous times since then, it has never been altered to take account of the changing medical consensus on gender identity and the role of sex reassignment procedures in treating gender dysphoria.

This is where the state fell down in the appeals filed by Eerieanna Good and Carol Beal from the denial of pre-clearance for their procedures. Their attorneys, Rita Bettis and Seth Horvath, retained the services of a distinguished expert, Dr. Randi Ettner, an author of several books on gender identity issues who has done a fair amount of public speaking and television appearances, who testified in detail about the current medical consensus about the nature of gender identity and appropriate health care for those diagnosed with gender dysphoria.  The current consensus goes beyond psychology to invoke fetal development, hormones, genes, and a biological basis for gender identity as a deeply rooted trait that is largely impervious to change, and these concepts are reflected in more up-to-date standard medical reference sources.

DHS did not produce an expert witness, instead resting on that quarter-century old Iowa Foundation report, which was mired in thinking already verging on obsolescence at the time, labeling “transsexualism” as purely a psychological issue and sex reassignment as essentially cosmetic.

Judge Gamble was not convinced by the state’s argument, finding Dr. Ettner’s testimony convincing and consistent with the medical literature. Gender identity issues are about more than psychology, the state agency has failed to keep up with the times, and the beliefs on which it based its 1995 regulation no longer enjoy professional acceptance in the field.  These findings clearly supported Judge Gamble’s conclusion that the Regulation is vulnerable to attack.

The state tried to argue that the Iowa Civil Rights Act, which was amended several years ago to add “gender identity” to the list of forbidden grounds of discrimination in public accommodations, did not apply. Medicaid, argued the state, is not a “public accommodation.”  Judge Gamble decided the state was mischaracterizing the issue.  Medicaid is a service, overseen and provided in Iowa through contracts with private managed care organizations (MCOs) by the DHS. The DHS, as a “unit of government,” is clearly a “public accommodation” within the meaning of the law, as are the MCOs that administer the program.

When the doctors for Good and Beal applied for pre-clearance to perform the medical procedures and were turned down, the MCOs relied on the DHS regulation, not engaging in any individualized evaluation of the claims. Similarly, when Good and Beal filed internal appeals, the DHS itself denied their appeals without any individualized analysis, merely invoking the old regulation. Thus, by refusing to authorize the procedures under Medicaid, the DHS, a public accommodation, was denying a service to Good and Beal.  And the court concluded that this denial was because of their gender identity, taking note of how the Regulation explicitly targeted transgender people for discrimination.

The plaintiffs had also claimed sex discrimination, but Judge Gamble found that under an old state supreme court decision that has never been overruled, he was precluded as a state trial judge from treating a gender identity discrimination claim as a sex discrimination claim under state law, although he acknowledged that many federal courts of appeals have now agreed with the argument that gender identity claims are covered by laws banning sex discrimination.

Turning to the constitutional challenge, Judge Gamble had to determine the level of judicial scrutiny to be applied to gender identity discrimination by a state agency, a question of first impression under the Iowa Constitution. He looked to the Iowa Supreme Court’s historic decision Varnum v. Brien from 2009, in which the Iowa Supreme Court became the first state high court in the nation to rule by unanimous vote that same-sex couples are entitled to marry.  In that case, the court had to determine the level of judicial scrutiny for a claim that the marriage laws unconstitutionally discriminated against gay people, and concluded that such discrimination was subject to heightened scrutiny, placing a significant burden of objective justification on the state.

Gamble found many parallels to the analysis of sexual orientation and gender identity claims, and concluded that heightened scrutiny should apply, having identified transgender people as a “quasi-suspect class.” The state had utterly failed to meet its burden of proof here, resting on outmoded misunderstanding of gender identity and failing to counter the plaintiffs’ expert testimony.  Hedging his bets in case of an appeal, Judge Gamble also evaluated the policy under the less demanding rational basis test, but the state fared no better, as he found that the plaintiffs “negated every reasonable basis for the classification that might support disparate treatment.  The Regulation’s exclusion of surgical treatment for Gender Dysphoria does not pass under rational basis review,” concluded Gamble, who went on to agree with the plaintiffs that continuing to enforce the Regulation violated the state’s Administrative Procedure Act, as being an “arbitrary or capricious” administrative action, depriving them of equal rights.

“While the Court understands that DHS is in some respect obligated to enforce the administrative rules as previously adopted,” Gamble wrote, “it also owes an obligation to ensure those rules conform to the statutes like the [Iowa Civil Rights Act] and the Iowa Constitution which trump any prior administrative rule. DHS also has an obligation to keep up with the medical science.  DHS failed to do so when it denied coverage to Good and Beal for medically necessary gender affirming surgery.  This decision was made without regard to the law and facts.  The agency acted in the face of evidence upon which there is no room for difference of opinion among reasonable minds.  The exclusion of coverage was unreasonable arbitrary and capricious.”

Finally, Judge Gamble rejected DHS’s plea to limit the scope of his ruling by giving the agency time to develop a new regulation and not make the court’s order immediately binding, or to write a narrow order that would not have any broader effect. Gamble refused to be so limited, pointing out that the plaintiffs had already suffered undue delay and were entitled to the coverage mandated by law.  A total wipe-out of the state’s position.  The Iowa Attorney General’s office did not offer any comment in the immediate aftermath of the ruling, which could be appealed.

Federal Appeals Court Renders Decisive Win for Transgender Students in Pennsylvania

Posted on: July 1st, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals issued an extensive written opinion on June 18, explaining the decision it had announced on May 24 to reject a legal challenge by some students and parents to the Boyertown School District’s decision to let transgender students use facilities consistent with their gender identity.  The opinion, written by Circuit Judge Theodore McKee, is a total victory for the school district and its transgender students, upholding the trial court’s refusal to enjoin the District’s trans-friendly policies while the case is being litigated.  Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 16323, 2018 WL 3016864.

This lawsuit was originally filed in March 2017 by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the Christian law firm that specializes in opposing policies protective of LGBT rights, representing some students at the Boyertown, Pennsylvania, schools, who objected to sharing facilities with transgender students. Some of the students’ parents or guardians are also plaintiffs in the case.  Citing an incident where one of the plaintiffs actually encountered a transgender student in a restroom, they claim that the District’s policy creates a “hostile environment” for the non-transgender students, violating their rights under Title IX, the Constitution, and the Pennsylvania common law right of privacy.

Title IX is a federal statute that provides that students at schools that receive federal financial assistance may not be deprived of equal educational opportunity on account of sex. In addition, the 14th Amendment has been interpreted to forbid sex discrimination by public institutions, as well as to protect the privacy rights of individual citizens from invasion by the government.  Pennsylvania’s common law recognizes a legal theory of unreasonable intrusion on the seclusion of another as a wrongful invasion of privacy.

The plaintiffs in this case argue that their equality and privacy rights were abridged by the School District’s policy allowing transgender students to use facilities consistent with their gender identity. The District undertook renovations of restroom and locker room facilities to increase individual privacy, and  has provided several single-user restrooms at the high school to accommodate any students who might feel uncomfortable using shared facilities to relieve themselves or change clothes.

U.S. District Judge Edward G. Smith issued a ruling last August denying a preliminary injunction that the plaintiffs requested to block the school’s policy while the case was litigated. Judge Smith found that the plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on the merits of their claim, and that granting the injunction would cause more harm to transgender students than any benefit to the plaintiffs.

McKee began his analysis by discussing the plaintiffs’ constitutional privacy claim. He acknowledged past cases holding that “a person has a constitutionally protected privacy interest in his or her partially clothed body,” but, he wrote, “the constitutional right to privacy is not absolute.  It must be weighed against important competing governmental interests.  Only unjustified invasions of privacy by the government are actionable.”  In this case, District Judge Smith had found that the Boyertown School District’s policy served “a compelling state interest in not discriminating against transgender students,” and that the policy was “narrowly tailored to that interest.”  The 3rd Circuit panel agreed with this conclusion.

The court found that “transgender students face extraordinary social, psychological, and medical risks and the School District clearly had a compelling state interest in shielding them from discrimination.” The court described expert testimony about the “substantial clinical distress” students could suffer as a result of gender dysphoria, which “is particularly high among children and may intensify during puberty.  The Supreme Court has regularly held that the state has a compelling interest in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors,” McKee continued.  “When transgender students face discrimination in schools, the risk to their wellbeing cannot be overstated – indeed, it can be life threatening.  This record clearly supports the District Court’s conclusion that the School District had a compelling state interest in protecting transgender students from discrimination.”

The court also observed that the challenged policy “fosters an environment of inclusivity, acceptance, and tolerance,” and specifically noted the amicus brief filed by the National Education Association, explaining how “these values serve an important educational function for both transgender and cisgender students.” Thus, the policy benefits not only transgender students but “it benefits all students by promoting acceptance.”

The court also pointed out that the District had gone out of its way to accommodate the privacy concerns of cisgender students by renovating the restrooms and locker rooms to enhance privacy and by making single-user restrooms available. “To the extent that the appellants’ claim for relief arises from the embarrassment and surprise they felt after seeing a transgender student in a particular space,” wrote McKee, “they are actually complaining about the implementation of the policy and the lack of pre-implementation communication.  That is an administrative issue, not a constitutional one.”

Thus, the court concluded, even if the policy is subject to “strict scrutiny” because it may involve a fundamental privacy right, it survives such scrutiny because of the compelling state interest involved and the way the District went about implementing it. The court observed that requiring the transgender students to use the single-sex facilities would not satisfy the state’s compelling interest, but would actually “significantly undermine it” since, as the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals stated last year in the case of transgender high school student Ash Whitaker, “a school district’s policy that required a transgender student to use single-user facilities ‘actually invited more scrutiny and attention from his peers.’”  McKee observed that “adopting the appellants’ position would very publicly brand all transgender students with a scarlet ‘T,’ and they should not have to endure that as a price of attending their public school.”

Furthermore, the court pointed out, the District’s policy “does not force any cisgender student to disrobe in the presence of any student – cisgender or transgender,” since the District has provided facilities “for any student who does not feel comfortable being in the confines of a communal restroom or locker room.” The renovation included “privacy stalls” and single-user facilities “so that any student who is uneasy undressing or using a restroom in the presence of others can take steps to avoid contact.”

But, said the court, it had never recognized an expansive constitutional right of privacy to the extent demanded by the plaintiffs in this case, and “no court has ever done so.” “School locker rooms and restrooms are spaces where it is not only common to encounter others in various stages of undress, it is expected.” Even the Supreme Court has commented that “public school locker rooms are not notable for the privacy they afford.”  So the court was unpersuaded that the plaintiffs’ demand in this case had any support in constitutional privacy law.

The 3rd Circuit panel also endorsed Judge Smith’s conclusion that there was no Title IX violation here.  As Smith found, “the School District’s policy treated all students equally and therefore did not discriminate on the basis of sex.”  Judge Smith had also found that the factual allegations did not rise to the level of a “hostile environment” claim, and the 3rd Circuit panel agreed with him.

Judge McKee pointed out that the Title IX regulations upon which plaintiff was relying do not mandate that schools provide “separate privacy facilities for the sexes,” but rather state permissively that providing separate facilities for male and female students will not be considered a violation of Title IX provided the facilities are equal. Furthermore, in order to find a hostile environment, the court would need evidence 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 plaintiffs’ allegations in this case came nowhere near meeting that standard.

Furthermore, the denial of equal access must be based on sex to violate Title IX. “The appellants have not provided any authority to suggest that a sex-neutral policy can give rise to a Title IX claim,” wrote Judge McKee.  “Instead, they simply hypothesize that ‘harassment’ that targets both sexes equally would violate Title IX; that is simply not the law.” He observed that the School District’s policy “allows all students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that align with their gender identity.  It does not discriminate based on sex, and therefore does not offend Title IX.”

The School District argued in response to the plaintiffs’ arguments that “barring transgender students from using privacy facilities that align with their gender identity would, itself, constitute discrimination under a sex-stereotyping theory in violation of Title IX.” This was the argument accepted by the 7th Circuit in Ash Whitaker’s lawsuit, and Gavin Grimm’s continuing lawsuit against the Gloucester County, Virginia, school district under Title IX, also advancing this theory, recently survived a motion to dismiss in the federal district court there.

But, wrote McKee, “We need not decide that very different issue here,” although he characterized the 7th Circuit’s decision in Whitaker’s case as “very persuasive” and said, “The analysis there supports the District Court’s conclusion that appellants were not likely to succeed on the merits of their Title IX claim.”

The court also agreed with Judge Smith’s conclusion that separate state tort law claims asserted by the plaintiffs were unlikely to be successful, having found that “the mere presence of a transgender individual in a bathroom or locker room is not the type of conduct that would be highly offensive to a reasonable person,” which is the standard for the tort of “intrusion upon seclusion” in Pennsylvania. The court also approved Smith’s finding that denying the preliminary injunction would not cause irreparable harm to the plaintiffs, as the District has taken reasonable steps to protect their privacy.

Thus, the District’s trans-supportive policy will remain in effect while this case is litigated. The likely next step, if ADF does not slink away in defeat, would be to litigate motions for summary judgment if the parties agree that there is no need for a trial over disputed facts.  However, ADF is likely to sharply contest the facts, so it may be that an actual trial is needed to resolve this case.

Levin Legal Group of Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania, represents the School District, and the ACLU of Pennsylvania and the ACLU’s national LGBT Rights Project, with volunteer attorneys from the law firm Cozen O’Connor, represent the Pennsylvania Youth Congress Foundation, which intervened in the case to protect the interests of transgender students in the Boyertown District.

Justice Department’s New Request to Implement Transgender Policy Denied by Seattle District Court

Posted on: June 19th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. Senior District Judge Marsha J. Pechman issued an opinion on June 15, rejecting another attempt by the Trump Administration to get her to lift her preliminary injunction in Karnoski v. Trump and allow the latest version of President Trump’s ban on military service by transgender individuals to go into effect while they appeal her earlier rulings to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.  Hope springs eternal at the Justice Department, as their new motion does not really make any arguments that Judge Pechman did not reject in her earlier opinions.  The new opinion in Karnoski v. Trump, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 100789 (W.D. Wash.), rejects the same arguments emphatically.

Last July, the President tweeted his declaration that transgender people would not be allowed to serve in the U.S. military in any capacity, purporting to reverse a policy on transgender service adopted by the Obama Administration and in effect since July 1, 2016. A month later the White House issued a memorandum setting out the President’s new policy in greater detail, including an implementation date in March 2018 and a permanent postponement of the January 1, 2018, date that had been set by Defense Secretary James Mattis last June for allowing transgender individuals to apply to join the service.  Four lawsuits were filed by different groups of plaintiffs in District Courts in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Seattle, and Riverside (California), challenging the constitutionality of the policy.  All four federal district judges found that the plaintiffs were likely to win on the merits and issued preliminary injunctions intended to have national effect, forbidding implementation of the policy while the litigation proceeded.  None of the district judges were willing to stay their injunctions pending appeal, and the D.C. and 4th Circuit Courts of Appeals also rejected motions to stay, at which point the Justice Department temporarily desisted from further appeals.

Meantime, Trump had ordered Mattis to come up with a written plan for implementation of the August Memorandum, to be submitted to the White House in February. After Mattis submitted his proposal, which departed in some particulars from the August Trump Memorandum, Trump “withdrew” his Memorandum and tweets and authorized Mattis to adopt his plan.  The Justice Department then argued to Judge Pechman that her preliminary injunction should be lifted, because the policy at which it was directed was no longer on the table.

The judge concluded, however, in line with the plaintiff’s arguments, that the new policy was just a slightly modified version of the earlier policy, presenting the same constitutional flaws, so she refused to vacate her injunction. Instead, responding to motions for summary judgment, she ruled that the case should proceed to discovery and a potential hearing on contested fact issues.  The Justice Department filed a notice of appeal to the 9th Circuit on April 30, and filed a motion with Judge Pechman seeking an expedited ruling on the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment so that it could be appealed.  However, the judge declined to issue an expedited ruling, as discovery was supposed to take place and disputed facts might require a hearing to resolve.  Discovery has been delayed by the Justice Department’s insistence that much of the information the plaintiffs seek is covered by Executive Privilege, a dubious claim at best. The Justice Department has filed a motion with the 9th Circuit asking it to stay the preliminary injunction pending appeal, but as of June 15 the 9th Circuit had not responded to the motion.

Judge Pechman’s June 15 opinion said that “each of the arguments raised by Defendants already has been considered and rejected by the Court, and Defendants have done nothing to remedy the constitutional violations that supported entry of a preliminary injunction in the first instance.” She pointed out that she was no more persuaded now than she had been previously by the argument that Mattis’s Implementation Plan was a “new and different” policy.

The Justice Department also argued that “the Ninth Circuit and/or this Court ultimately are highly likely to conclude that significant deference is appropriate,” but Judge Pechman responded, “whether any deference is due remains unresolved.  Defendants bear the burden of providing a ‘genuine’ justification for the Ban.  To withstand judicial scrutiny, that justification must ‘describe actual state purposes, not rationalizations’ and must not be ‘hypothesized or invented post hoc in response to litigation.’”  To date,” she observed, “Defendants have steadfastly refused to put before the Court evidence of any justification that predates this litigation.”

She also pointed out that there are four nationwide preliminary injunctions in effect, not just hers. “As a practical matter,” she wrote, “Defendants face the challenge of convincing each of these courts to lift their injunctions before they may implement the Ban.”

The Justice Department also argued that failure to let the government implement the ban “will irreparably harm the government (and the public) by compelling the military to adhere to a policy it has concluded poses substantial risks.” But, Judge Pechman pointed out, at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Armed Services held after her injunction went into effect, both the Army Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, and the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral John Richardson, had testified that there were no problems with transgender people serving, as thousands are now doing.  Milley testified that he “monitors very closely” the situation and had received “precisely zer”’ reports of problems related to unit cohesion, discipline and morale.  Similarly, Admiral Richardson testified that he had received no negative reports, and that, in his experience, “it’s steady as she goes.”

The judge had already found that staying her injunction would likely cause irreparable injury to the plaintiffs, and that, in fact, “maintaining the injunction pending appeal advances the public’s interest in a strong national defense, as it allows skilled and qualified service members to continue to serve their country.”  She also rejected the Justice Department’s argument that her injunction should just apply to the nine individual transgender plaintiffs in the case, stating, “The Ban, like the Constitution, would apply nationwide.  Accordingly, a nationwide injunction is appropriate.”  And, she wrote, “The status quo shall remain ‘steady as she goes,’ and the preliminary injunction shall remain in full force and effect nationwide.”

The plaintiffs in the Karnoski case are represented by a small army of lawyers affiliated with Lambda Legal, Kirkland & Ellis (Chicago), Outserve-SLDN, and Seattle local counsel Newman & Du Wors LLP. The state of Washington, co-plaintiff in the case, is represented by attorneys from Kirkland & Ellis and the Washington Attorney General’s Office.  Fifteen states and the District of Columbia, the Constitutional Accountability Center, and Legal Voice (formerly known as the Northwest Women’s Law Center) are also participating in this case as amicus on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Obscure Brooklyn Appellate Ruling Protects Transgender People from Discrimination Without Saying So

Posted on: June 14th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

Talk about “hiding the ball!” On June 6, a unanimous four-judge panel of the New York Appellate Division, 2nd Department, based in Brooklyn, confirmed an Order by the State Division of Human Rights (SDHR), which had adopted a decision by an agency administrative law judge (ALJ) ruling that a Port Jervis employer violated the human rights law when it discharged a transgender employee.

But nobody reading the court’s short memorandum opinion, or the short agency opinion and order, would have any idea that the case involved a gender identity discrimination claim. Surprisingly, given the novelty of the legal issues involved, only the administrative law judge’s opinion, an internal agency document, communicates what the case is actually about.

The case is Matter of Advanced Recovery, Inc. v. Fuller, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op 03974, 2018 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 3969, 2018 WL 2709861 (N.Y. App. Div., 2nd Dept., June 6, 2018).

Erin Fuller, a transgender woman, was fired by Mark Rea, the owner and chief executive of Advanced Recovery, Inc., the day Fuller presented a supervisor with a copy of a court order authorizing her change of name from Edward to Erin and the supervisor passed the document to Rea. Rea called Fuller into his office and, according to Fuller, said in the presence of the supervisor, “Now I have a problem with your condition.  I have to let you go.”

Rea and other company officials had been aware for some time that Fuller was transitioning, since she had presented them with a letter from her doctor in 2009 explaining her gender dysphoria diagnosis and how she would be transitioning, and on at least one occasion Rea had reacted adversely to Fuller’s mode of dress, but it wasn’t until he was presented with the legal name change that Rea apparently decided that he had enough and no longer wanted Fuller, a good worker who had been with the company more than two years.

When Fuller went back later to pick up her final paycheck, a supervisor told her that “he felt bad, but your job would be waiting for you as long as you came in wearing normal clothes.”

Attempting to escape possible liability, Rea and the company’s lawyer later came up with a termination letter that cited other reasons for terminating Fuller and said nothing about her name change, mode of dress, or gender identity, but they never sent her that letter, which first surfaced when it was offered as evidence at the SDHR law judge’s hearing on Fuller’s discrimination claim.

The discharge took place on August 4, 2010, several years before Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the SDHR to adopt a policy under which gender identity discrimination claims would be deemed to come within the coverage of the state’s ban on sex discrimination.

Fuller filed her complaint with SDHR on October 13, 2010. On the complaint form, she checked the boxes for “sex” and “disability” as the unlawful grounds for her termination.  After the company was notified of the complaint, it apparently prompted local police to arrest Fuller for altering a medical prescription, a spurious charge based on her changing the pronouns on the note written by a doctor on a prescription form after she missed a few days of work due to hospital treatment.  At the time, she didn’t think of amending her discrimination charge to allege retaliation, unfortunately, waiting until the hearing to raise the issue, by which time the judge had to reject her motion because she waited too long to assert the retaliation claim.

The agency concluded, after investigation, that it had jurisdiction over the discharge claim and set the case for a public hearing before an ALJ. At the hearing, Fuller was represented by attorneys Stephen Bergstein and Helen Ullrich, who persuaded the judge that Fuller had a valid claim and that the reasons given by the employer for firing her were pretexts for discrimination.  The same lawyers represented Fuller when the company appealed the judge’s ruling to the Appellate Division.

Relying on a scattering of trial court decisions holding that transgender people are protected from discrimination under the New York Human Rights Law, ALJ Robert M. Vespoli concluded that Fuller “states a claim pursuant to New York State’s Human Rights Law on the ground that the word ‘sex’ in the statute covers transsexuals.”

“Complainant also has a disability,” wrote Vespoli, “as that term is defined in the Human Rights Law.” The New York Human Rights Law’s definition of “disability” is broader and more general than the federal definition in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and New  York law does not have the explicit exclusion of coverage for people with “gender identity disorders” that is in the federal law.  Under New York’s law, a disability is “a physical, mental or medical impairment resulting from anatomical, physiological, genetic or neurological conditions which prevents the exercise of a normal bodily function or is demonstrable by medically accepted clinical or laboratory diagnostic techniques.”  The statute provides that a disability may also be a “record of such impairment or the perception of such impairment.”

“During the relevant time period,” wrote Vespoli, “Complainant was diagnosed with gender dysphoria. This condition falls within the broad definition of disability recognized under the Human Rights Law,” citing a 2011 decision by the agency to recognize its jurisdiction in a transgender discrimination case. The employer could not claim ignorance about Fuller’s transition, because in 2009 she had presented the company with her doctor’s letter explaining the situation, after which she began to dress and groom differently.

In his opinion dated February 20, 2015, Judge Vespoli rejected the employer’s evidence of other reasons for the discharge, finding that the proffered letter was a document created after the discharge for the purpose of litigation, that it had never been delivered to Fuller, and that the reasons it offered were pretexts for discrimination. The judge recommended awarding Fuller $14,560.00 in back pay and $30,000.00 for mental anguish caused by the discrimination.  He also recommended imposing a civil penalty on the company of $20,000.00.

The company filed objections to Vespoli’s recommendations with the Commission, but did not specifically object to Vespoli’s finding that Fuller had a disability or that the agency had jurisdiction over this case on grounds of sex and disability. The Commission’s Notice and Final Order of April 1, 2015, overruling without discussing the company’s evidentiary objections and adopting the judge’s recommendations and findings, said nothing about the details of the case, beyond noting that Fuller had complained of discrimination because of sex and disability.

The company’s appeal to the court again did not explicitly contest the ruling that the statute covers the case, instead urging the court to find that the ruling was not supported by substantial evidence of discrimination. Perhaps because the company’s appeal did not raise the question whether the Human Rights Law bans discrimination because of gender identity, the Appellate Division’s ruling also  did not  mention that the complainant is a transgender woman, and did not discuss the question whether this kind of case is covered under the disability provision.  Rather, the court’s opinion recites that the complainant alleged “that the petitioners discriminated against her on the basis of sex and disability,” and that the agency had ruled in her favor.  “Here there is substantial evidence in the record to support the SDHR’s determination that the complainant established a prima facie case of discrimination, and that the petitioners’ proffered reasons for terminating the complainant’s employment were a pretext for unlawful discrimination.  The petitioner’s remaining contentions are either not properly before this Court or without merit.”

Of course, Fuller’s brief in response to the appeal would have mentioned this issue, and SDHR, which cross-petitioned for enforcement of its Order, mentioned the issue as well.

The court wrote that there is “substantial evidence in the record” to support the agency’s ruling, so the court presumably looked at the record, including the ALJ’s opinion, and was aware that this was a gender identity discrimination claim.  The appellate panel surely knew that this was an important issue in the case.

Cursory research in published New York court opinions would show that there is no prior appellate ruling in New York finding that a gender identity claim can be asserted under the Human Rights Law’s prohibited grounds of “sex” and “disability.” The court took its time on this case, waiting until June 6, 2018, to issue a ruling upholding an administrative decision that was issued on April 1, 2015.  Despite taking all this time, the court produced an opinion that never mentions these details, that provides no discussion of the ALJ’s analysis of the jurisdictional issue, and that does not expressly state agreement with the trial court ruling that Judge Vespoli specifically cited in support of his conclusions.

This may be the first case in which a New York appellate court has affirmed a ruling holding that an employer violated the state’s Human Rights Law by discriminating against an employee because of her gender identity, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the court’s opinion. While the court’s failure to mention the doctrinal significance of its ruling may be explainable because the employer did not raise the issue on its appeal, it’s omission nonetheless renders the decision basically useless as an appellate precedent.

One can fairly criticize the court for failing to play its proper role in a system of judicial precedent to produce a decision that can be referred to by later courts. The judges whose names appear on this uninformative opinion are Justices Mark C. Dillon, Ruth C. Balkin, Robert J. Miller, and Hector D. LaSalle.

Governor Cuomo’s directive, issued while this case was pending before the Appellate Division, actually reinforced existing practice at the State Division of Human Rights, as the earlier opinions cited in Judge Vespoli’s opinion show, but in the absence of an explicit appellate ruling, enactment of the Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Act remains an important goal and its recent defeat in a Senate committee after renewed passage by the Assembly is more than merely a symbolic setback for the community.

A legal team of Caroline J. Downey, Toni Ann Hollifield and Michael K. Swirsky represented SDHR before the Appellate Division, which had cross-petitioned for enforcement of its decision. Port Jervis lawyer James J. Herkenham represented the company, and Stephen Bergstein of Bergstein & Ullrich presented Fuller’s response to the appeal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Third Circuit Rejects Challenge to Pennsylvania School District’s Policy Allowing Transgender Students to Use Facilities Consistent with Their Gender Identities

Posted on: May 26th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

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.

 

Federal Court Rejects Gloucester School District’s Motion to Dismiss Gavin Grimm’s Case

Posted on: May 23rd, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

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.

Out Gay Federal Judge Rejects Anonymity for Genderqueer Trans-Masculine Plaintiff

Posted on: May 7th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

 

U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken, himself the first out gay man to be appointed a federal trial judge, has granted a motion by the defendants in an employment discrimination case to lift an order he had previously issued allowing the plaintiff, a “genderqueer and transmasculine” individual, to proceed anonymously as “Jamie Doe” in a discrimination lawsuit against their former employer, Fedcap Rehabilitation Services, and two of Fedcap’s supervisors. Judge Oetken gave the plaintiff 14 days from the April 27 ruling on FedCap’s motion to decide whether they intend to proceed with this suit using their real name.  Doe v. Fedcap Rehabilitation Services, Inc., 2018 WL 2021588, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 71174 (S.D.N.Y., April 27, 2018).

The plaintiff uses “preferred pronouns of ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘theirs,” wrote the judge. “Doe” alleges that “the Defendants discriminated against Doe based on Plaintiff’s disability (breast cancer, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder), sexual orientation (queer), and gender (gender non-conformity/genderqueer/trans-masculine). Plaintiff also alleges that Defendants retaliated against Plaintiff for exercising their rights under the Family Medical Leave Act.  Plaintiff has since left Fedcap and found new employment.”  Upon filing the lawsuit, Doe had moved to proceed under a pseudonym. The court granted the motion without prejudice to the Defendants’ right to seek lifting of the order, which they have now done.

The starting point for the court is Rule 10(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which provides that “all the parties” be named in the title of a Complaint. The 2nd Circuit, which has appellate jurisdiction over cases filed in the Southern District of New York, has ruled that this requirement “serves the vital purpose of facilitating public scrutiny of judicial proceedings and therefore cannot be set aside lightly.”  That court has commented, “When determining whether a plaintiff may be allowed to maintain an action under a pseudonym, the plaintiff’s interest in anonymity must be balanced against both the public interest in disclosure and any prejudice to the defendant.”  The 2nd Circuit has identified a non-exclusive list of ten different factors that courts might consider in conducting such a balancing test.

The plaintiff identified four harms if their name is revealed in this litigation. Plaintiff says their trans-masculinity is an “intimate detail” that they don’t want to disclose through the public record; that “outing them” as trans-masculine would compound the trauma they have already suffered from the defendant’s discrimination; that “genderqueer individuals suffer disproportionately from discrimination” and “outing” them in this way would place them “at further risk of discrimination by employees at their new job,” and finally that, as a parent of school-age children, plaintiff is concerned that disclosing their identity may expose their children to bullying.”

The defendants identified three types of prejudice to them if plaintiff is allowed to proceed anonymously. First, the “non-trivial cost of sealing or redacting court filings;” second, that “anonymity might allow Plaintiff to make accusations that they would not have made if their identity were publicly known;” and third, “Defendants contend that anonymity creates an imbalance when it comes to settlement negotiations.”  The defendants, who are not anonymous, may feel public pressure to settle the case in order to avoid bad publicity, while an anonymous plaintiff might “hold out for a larger settlement because they face no such reputational risk.”

Judge Oetken concluded that the case “presents no particularly strong public interest in revealing Plaintiff’s identity beyond the ‘universal public interest in access to the identities of litigants,’” which he remarks is “not trivial.” But the public interest would not be “especially harmed if Plaintiff proceeded pseudonymously.”

However, wrote the judge, “The key issue here is the extent to which Plaintiff has already revealed their gender and sexual orientation to the general public. Defendants point to Plaintiff’s voluntary participation in a news story for a major news outlet.  In the story, Plaintiff used their real name, identified as genderqueer, and revealed other details about their gender non-conformity.  The article also featured a photograph of Plaintiff, and the picture specifically illustrated Plaintiff’s non-conformance with gender norms.”  Thus, the defendants argued, Doe had already voluntarily disclosed “the sensitive issues they seek to keep secret in this case.”

Doe disagrees, saying they have revealed their sexual orientation but not their gender identity, particularly their identity as “trans-masculine,” which would be disclosed if they have to proceed under their real name in this lawsuit. But this argument did not persuade Judge Oetken, who wrote, “But while that is true, the news story still shows that Plaintiff was comfortable with putting their gender-non-conformity in the public eye.  The Court is mindful that coming out is a delicate process, and that LGBTQ individuals may feel comfortable disclosing one aspect of their identity but uncomfortable disclosing another.  Nevertheless, Plaintiff’s very public coming out as genderqueer undermines their arguments about the harm that would be caused by disclosure of their trans-masculinity.”

The court concluded that the issue was “whether the additional disclosure of Plaintiff’s identity as trans-masculine would so harm Plaintiff as to outweigh the significant prejudice to Defendants and the public interest in access to the identities of the litigants. Plaintiff has not met that significant burden.”  Oetken suggests that Plaintiff wants “what most employment-discrimination plaintiffs would like: to sue their former employer without future employers knowing about it,” but that is not how the civil litigation system is set up.  “Defendants – including two individuals – stand publicly accused of discrimination and harassment, including detailed allegations of misconduct.  Defendants do not have the option of proceeding pseudonymously,” commented Oetken. “Allowing Plaintiff to proceed anonymously would put Defendants at a genuine disadvantage, particularly when it comes to settlement leverage.  Courts allow such an imbalance only in unique circumstances, and Plaintiff has not shown that this is one of those special cases.”

While acknowledging that the disclosure of Doe’s trans-masculinity “would be difficult and uncomfortable,” wrote the judge, “this alone is not enough to demonstrate the exceptional circumstances required to proceed pseudonomously, especially in light of Plaintiff’s public identification as genderqueer.”

During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, many federal courts granted motions for plaintiffs suing for AIDS-related discrimination to proceed as John Doe or Jane Doe, accepting the argument that requiring them to sue under their own names would have compounded the discrimination they had suffered, especially in light of the media interest in reporting about legal issues stemming from the epidemic. Today, when there is considerable litigation by transgender individuals, including high school students seeking appropriate restroom access, it is not unusual to find that the court will refer to plaintiffs by their initials, even though the plaintiffs — represented by public interest law firms — may have revealed their names and posed for photos to publicize their cases.  One suspects that “Jaime Doe” would have been allowed to proceed anonymously had they not already appeared under their name in news stories.

Doe is represented by Brittany Alexandra Stevens of Phillips & Associates PLLC, and Marjorie Mesidor of Phillips & Phillips PLLC. Attorneys from the law firm of Epstein, Becker & Green, P.C., represent the defendants.

Federal Court Rejects Trump Administration Ploy and Orders Trial on Trans Military Ban

Posted on: April 14th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman issued an Order on April 13 in Karnoski v. Trump, one of four pending legal challenges to the Trump Administration’s announced ban on military service by transgender people.  Judge Pechman, who sits in the Western District of Washington (Seattle), rejected the Administration’s argument that existing preliminary injunctions issued by her and three other federal district judges last year against the transgender ban are moot because of President Donald J. Trump’s March 23 Memorandum, which purported to “revoke” his August 25, 2017, Memorandum and July 26, 2017, tweets announcing the ban.  Karnoski v. Trump,  2018 WL 1784464 (W.D. Wash.).

Her skepticism as to this is clear from her description of events: “The 2018 Memorandum confirms [Trump’s] receipt of [Defense Secretary James Mattis’s] Implementation Plan, purports to ‘revoke’ the 2017 Memorandum and ‘any other directive [he] may have made with respect to military service by transgender individuals [an oblique reference to the July tweets],’ and directs the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security to ‘exercise their authority to implement any appropriate policies concerning military service by transgender individuals.’”  Thus, the judge rejected the Administration’s contention that Mattis was directed by the President to have a new study made to decide whether to let transgender people serve, and saw it for what it was: an order to propose a plan to implement Trump’s announced ban.

Judge Pechman also rejected the government’s argument that the policy announced in the February 22 Memorandum signed by Secretary James Mattis either deprives all the plaintiffs in the case of “standing” to sue the government, or that the policy it announces is so different from the one previously announced by President Trump that the current lawsuit, specifically aimed at the previously announced policy, is effectively moot as well. The government argued that due to various tweaks and exceptions to the policy announced on March 23, none of the individual plaintiffs in this case were threatened with the kind of individualized harm necessary to have standing, but Pechman concluded that each of the plaintiffs, in facts submitted in response to the March 23 policy, had adequately shown that they still had a personal stake in the outcome of this case.

Instead, and most consequentially, Judge Pechman found that the court should employ the most demanding level of judicial review – strict scrutiny – because transgender people are a “suspect class” for constitutional purposes.  However, Judge Pechman decided that it is premature to grant summary judgment to the plaintiffs, because disputed issues of material fact will require further hearings to resolve.  One is whether the government can prove that excluding transgender people from the military is necessary for the national security of the United States.  Another is whether the purported “study” that produced the February 22 “Report and Recommendations” and Mattis’s Memorandum are entitled to the kind of deference that courts ordinarily extend to military policies.

Judge Pechman’s boldest step is abandoning her prior ruling in this case that the challenged policies are subject only to heightened scrutiny, not strict scrutiny.  Although the Supreme Court has not been consistent or precise in its approach to the level of judicial scrutiny for constitutional challenges to government actions, legal scholars and lower courts have generally described its rulings as divided into three general categories – strict scrutiny, heightened scrutiny, and rationality review.

If a case involves discrimination that uses a “suspect classification,” the approach is strict scrutiny. The policy is presumed unconstitutional and the government has a heavy burden of showing that it is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest, and is narrowly tailored to achieve that interest without unnecessarily burdening individual rights.  The Supreme Court has identified race, national origin and religion as suspect classifications, and has not identified any new such classifications in a long time.  Lower federal courts have generally refrained from identifying any new federal suspect classifications, but the California Supreme Court decided in 2008 that sexual orientation is a suspect classification under its state constitution when it struck down the ban on same-sex marriage.

Challenges to economic and social legislation that do not involve “suspect classifications” or “fundamental rights” are generally reviewed under the “rational basis” test. They are not presumed unconstitutional, and the burden is on the plaintiff to show that there was no rational, non-discriminatory reason to support the challenged law.  Courts generally presume that legislatures have rational policy reasons for their actions, but evidence that a law was adopted solely due to animus against a particular group will result in it being declared unconstitutional.

During the last quarter of the 20th century, the Supreme Court began to identify some types of discrimination that fell somewhere between these existing categories, and the third “tier” of judicial review emerged, first in cases involving discrimination because of sex.  The Supreme Court has used a variety of verbal formulations to describe this “heightened scrutiny” standard, but it places the burden on the government to show that such a law actually advances an important government interest.

So far, litigation about transgender rights in the federal courts has progressed to a heightened scrutiny standard in decisions from several circuit courts, including recent controversies about restroom access for transgender high school students, public employee discrimination cases, and lawsuits by transgender prisoners. Ruling on preliminary injunction motions in the transgender military cases last fall, Judge Pechman and the three other federal judges all referred to a heightened scrutiny standard.  Now Judge Pechman blazes a new trail by ruling that discrimination against transgender people should be subject to the same strict scrutiny test used in race discrimination cases.

It is very difficult for the government to win a strict scrutiny case, but its best shot in this litigation depends on the court finding that the policy announced by Mattis is entitled to deference, and this turns on whether it is the product of “expert military judgment,” a phrase that appears in the Mattis Memorandum and the Report.   Judge Pechman has already signaled in her Order her skepticism as to this.  By characterizing this as an “Implementation Plan,” she implies that the question whether Trump actually consulted with generals and military experts back in July before tweeting his absolute ban remains in play, and she pointedly notes the continued refusal by the government to reveal who, if anyone, Trump consulted.

“Defendants to date have failed to identify even one General or military expert he consulted,” she wrote, “despite having been ordered to do so repeatedly. Indeed, the only evidence concerning the lead-up to his Twitter Announcement reveals that military officials were entirely unaware of the Ban, and that the abrupt change in policy was ‘unexpected.’”  Here she quotes Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford’s statement the day after the tweets that “yesterday’s announcement was unexpected,” and news reports that White House and Pentagon officials “were unable to explain the most basic of details about how it would be carried out.”  She also notes that Mattis was given only one day’s notice before the announcement.  “As no other persons have ever been identified by Defendants – despite repeated Court orders to do so – the Court is led to conclude that the Ban was devised by the President, and the President alone.”

Thus, it would be logical to conclude, as she had preliminarily concluded last year when she issued her injunction, that no military expertise was involved and so no deference should be extended to the policy. On the other hand, the new “Report and Recommendations” are now advanced by the government as filling the information gap and supporting deference.  But Judge Pechman remains skeptical.  (There are press reports, which she does not mention, that this document originated at the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, rather than from the Defense Department, and it has been subjected to withering criticism by, among others, the American Psychiatric Association.)

Citing their “study,” the government now claims “that the Ban – as set forth in the 2018 Memorandum and the Implementation Plan – is now the product of a deliberative review. In particular, Defendants claim the Ban has been subjected to ‘an exhaustive study’ and is consistent with the recommendations of a ‘Panel of Experts’ convened by Secretary Mattis to study ‘military service by transgender individuals, focusing on military readiness, lethality, and unit cohesion,’ and tasked with ‘conduct[ing] an independent multi-disciplinary review and study of relevant data and information pertaining to transgender Service members.’  Defendants claim that the Panel was comprised of senior military leaders who received ‘support from medical and personnel experts from across the [DoD] and [DHS],’ and considered ‘input from transgender Service members, commanders of transgender Service members, military medical professionals, and civilian medical professions with experience in the care and treatment of individuals with gender dysphoria.’  The Defendants also claim that the Report was ‘informed by the [DoD]’s own data obtained since the new policy began to take effect last year.’”

But, having “carefully considered the Implementation Plan,” wrote Pechman, “the Court concludes that whether the Ban is entitled to deference raises an unresolved question of fact. The Implementation Plan was not disclosed until March 23, 2018.  As Defendants’ claims and evidence regarding their justifications for the Ban were presented to the Court only recently, Plaintiffs and [The State of Washington, which has intervened as a co-plaintiff] have not yet had an opportunity to test or respond to these claims.  On the present record, the Court cannot determine whether the DoD’s deliberate process – including the timing and thoroughness of its study and the soundness of the medical and other evidence it relied upon – is of the type to which Courts typically should defer.”

In other words, Pechman suspects that this purported “study” is a political document, produced for litigation purposes, and she is undoubtedly aware that its accuracy has been sharply criticized. Furthermore, she wrote, “The Court notes that, even in the event it were to conclude that deference is owed, it would not be rendered powerless to address Plaintiffs’ and Washington’s constitutional claims, as Defendants seem to suggest.”  And, she noted pointedly, the Defendants’ “claimed justifications for the Ban – to promote ‘military lethality and readiness’ and avoid ‘disrupt[ing] unit cohesion, or tax[ing] military resources’ – are strikingly similar to justifications offered in the past to support the military’s exclusion and segregation of African American service members, its ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, and its policy preventing women from serving in combat roles.”  In short, Pechman will not be bamboozled by a replay of past discriminatory policies, all of which have been abandoned because they were based mainly on prejudice and stereotyping.

Thus, although the judge denied for now the Plaintiffs’ motions for summary judgment, it was because factual controversies must be resolved before the court can make a final ruling on the merits.

The Defendants won only one tiny victory in this ruling: a concession that the court lacks jurisdiction to impose injunctive relief against President Trump in his official capacity. However, even that was just a partial victory for Defendants, as Judge Pechman rejected the suggestion that the court lacks jurisdiction to issue a declaratory judgment against the President.  “The Court is aware of no case holding that the President is immune from declaratory relief – rather, the Supreme Court has explicitly affirmed the entry of such relief,” citing several cases as examples.  “The Court concludes that, not only does it have jurisdiction to issue declaratory relief against the President, but that this case presents a ‘most appropriate instance’ for such relief,” she continued, taking note of Trump’s original Twitter announcement, and that two of the operative Memoranda at issue in the case were signed by Trump.  If, as Judge Pechman suspects, the Ban was devised in the first instance by Trump, and by Trump alone, a declaratory judgment that his action violated the Constitution would be entirely appropriate.

Plaintiffs are represented by a team of attorneys from Lambda Legal and OutServe-SLDN, with pro bono assistance from the law firms of Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Newman Du Wors LLP.

(Post script):

Trump Administration Issues New Transgender Military Policy, Attempting To Sidetrack Lawsuits

Posted on: March 26th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

In a move intended to evade existing preliminary injunctions while reaffirming in its essential elements President Trump’s Twitter announcement from last July categorically prohibiting military service by transgender individuals, the Administration issued three new documents on Friday afternoon, March 23, the date that the President had designated in an August 2017 Memorandum for his announced policy to take effect.  A new Presidential Memorandum “revoked” Trump’s August Memo and authorized the Defense and Homeland Security Secretaries to “implement any appropriate policies concerning military service by transgender individuals.”  At the same time, Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys filed with the federal court in Seattle copies of Defense Secretary James Mattis’s Memorandum to the President and a Department of Defense (DOJ) working group’s “Report and Recommendations” that had been submitted to the White House on February 23, in which Mattis recommended a version of Trump’s transgender ban that would effectively preclude military service for many, perhaps most, transgender applicants and some of those already serving, although the number affected was not immediately clear.

 

Mattis’s recommendation drew a distinction between transgender status and the “medical condition” of gender dysphoria, as defined in the psychiatric diagnostic manual (DSM) generally cited as authoritative in litigation.  Mattis is willing to let transgender people enlist unless they have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, which the Report characterizes, based heavily on subjective assertions rather than any evidence, as a condition presenting undue risks in a military environment.  Transgender people can enlist if they do not desire to transition and are willing to conform to all military requirements consistent with their biological sex as designated at birth.  Similarly, transgender people currently serving who have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria can serve on the same basis: that they comply with all requirements for service members of their biological sex.  However, people with a gender dysphoria diagnosis are largely excluded from enlistment or retention, with some individual exceptions, although those currently serving who were diagnosed after the Obama Administration lifted the transgender ban on June 30, 2016, are “exempted” from these exclusions and may serve while transitioning and after transitioning consistent with their gender identity.  (This is pragmatically justified by the investment the military has made in their training, and is conditioned on their meeting all military performance requirement for those in their desired gender presentation.)  Under the recommended policy, Defense Department transition-related health coverage will continue to be available for this “grandfathered” group, but for no others.

 

The March 23 document release took place just days before attorneys from Lambda Legal and the DOJ were scheduled to appear on March 27 in U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman’s Seattle federal courtroom to present arguments on Lambda’s motion for summary judgment in Karnoski v. Trump, one of the four pending legal challenges to the policy. Lambda’s motion, filed in January, was aimed at Trump’s July tweet and August Memorandum, although it anticipated that the Administration would attempt to come up with some sort of documents to fill the fatal gap identified by four federal district judges when they issued preliminary injunctions last fall: Trump’s unilateral actions were not based on any sort of “expert military judgment,” but rather on his short-term political need to win sufficient Republican votes in the House to pass a then-pending Defense Department spending measure.

 

Based on the obvious conclusion that Trump’s policy was not based on “expert military judgment,” the courts refused to accord it the usual deference that federal courts accord to military regulations and rules when they are challenged in court. Indeed, the only in-depth military study on the subject was that carried out over a period of years by the Obama Administration before it lifted the transgender service ban formally on June 30, 2016, while delaying implementation of new accession standards for transgender enlistees for a year. (Mattis later extended that deadline an additional six months to January 1, 2018.)  With no factual backup, Trump’s across-the-board ban was highly vulnerable to constitutional challenge in light of recent federal court rulings that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination.  Policies that discriminate because of sex are treated by courts as presumptively unconstitutional, putting the government to the burden of showing that they substantially advance an important government interest, and demanding “exceedingly persuasive” proof.  The “Report and Recommendations” filed in Judge Pechman’s court were clearly devised to attempt to fill that evidentiary gap, despite their disclaimer that the group assembled to study the issues and report their recommendations to Mattis and the President were tasked with an objective policy review.

 

The White House document dump ignited a host of questions. There was no clarity about when the “new” policies recommended by Mattis were intended to go into effect (their implementation would require rewriting and formal adoption in the form of regulations), and there were many questions about how transgender people currently serving would be affected.  Defense Department spokespersons said that the Pentagon would abide by federal law, which at present consists of the preliminary injunctions against the policies announced by Trump last summer, which were supposed to go into effect on March 23, 2018, if they had not been blocked by the courts.

 

Since the preliminary injunctions were all aimed at last summer’s tweets and August Memorandum, were they rendered moot by Trump’s revocation of those policy announcements? Or would the courts see the proposed new policy as essentially a continuation of what Trump had initiated, and thus covered by the preliminary injunctions?  The district judges had all denied requests by the government to stay these injunctions, and two courts of appeals had refused to stay those issued by the judges in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., leading DOJ to desist from seeking a stay of the Seattle and Riverside, California, injunctions.  Complying with those injunctions, the Pentagon allowed transgender people to begin applying to enlist in January, and announced that at least one transgender applicant had completed the enlistment process by February.  Arguably, the preliminary injunctions would apply to any policy of excluding transgender people from military service pending a final resolution of these cases, giving them a broad reading consistent with their analysis of the underlying issues.

 

In a signal of what was coming, DOJ attorneys stoutly combatted the plaintiffs’ demand in the Seattle case for disclosure of the identity of “generals and military experts” with whom Trump claimed in his July tweets to have consulted before announcing his categorical ban, arguing that after Mattis made his recommendation in February, DOJ would not be defending the policy announced in the summer but rather whatever new policy the President decided to announce, relying upon Mattis’ “expert military judgment” and whatever documentation was provided to support it. That led to a series of confrontations over the discovery demand, producing two written opinions by Judge Pechman ordering DOJ to come up with the requested information, and at last provoking a questionable claim of Executive Privilege protecting the identity of those consulted by Trump.  This waited to be resolved at the March 27 hearing as well.

 

The Administration’s strategic moves on March 23 appeared intended to change the field of battle in the pending lawsuits. When they were originally filed, they had a big fat target in Trump’s unilateral, unsupported actions.  By revoking his August Memorandum and “any other directive I may have made” (that is, the tweets from July), Trump sought to remove that target and replace it with a new, possibly more defensible one: a policy recommended and eventually adopted as “appropriate” by Mattis based on his “expert military judgment” in response to the recommendation of his study.  Clearly, the Administration was aiming to be able to rely on judicial deference to avoid having to defend the newly-announced policy on its constitutional merits.

 

The big lingering question is whether the courts will let them get away with this. The policy itself suffers from many of the same constitutional flaws as the one it replaces, but the “Report and Recommendations” – cobbled together in heavy reliance on the work of dedicated opponents to transgender military service – has at least the veneer and trappings of a serious policy review.  The plaintiffs in the existing lawsuit will now need to discredit it in the eyes of the courts, painting it as the litigation advocacy document that it obviously is.

 

Mark Joseph Stern, in a detailed dissection published in “Slate ” shortly after the document release, credited Administration sources with revealing that the process of producing the report had been taken over by Vice President Pence and Heritage Foundation personnel who have been producing articles opposing transgender rights in a variety of contexts. According to Stern’s report, Mattis was opposed to reinstating the transgender ban, but was overruled by the White House and is reacting as a soldier to the dictates of his Commander in Chief, unwilling to spend political capital on this issue.  Tellingly, the Report itself does not provide the names of any of those responsible for its actual composition, setting up a new discovery confrontation between the plaintiffs and DOJ.

 

Some are predicting that the new policy will never go into effect. If the courts refuse to be bamboozled by the façade of reasoned policy-making now presented by the Administration, those predictions may be correct.

Federal Appeals Court Rules for Transgender Funeral Director in Title VII Discrimination Suit

Posted on: March 11th, 2018 by Art Leonard No Comments

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled on March 7 in Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., 2018 WL 1177669, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 5720, that a Michigan funeral home violated federal anti-discrimination law by terminating a funeral director who announced that she would be transitioning during her summer vacation and would return to work as a woman.  The 6th Circuit has appellate jurisdiction over federal cases from Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Rejecting a ruling by U.S. District Judge Sean F. Cox that the funeral home’s action was protected by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote for the court that the government’s “compelling interest” to eradicate employment discrimination because of sex took priority over the religious beliefs of the funeral home’s owner.

This is the first time that any federal appeals court has ruled that RFRA would not shelter an employer from a gender identity discrimination claim by a transgender plaintiff.  Although the 6th Circuit has allowed Title VII claims by transgender plaintiffs in the past under a “gender stereotype” theory, this is also the first time that the 6th Circuit has explicitly endorsed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s conclusion that gender identity discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, directly prohibited by Title VII.  Judge Moore drew a direct comparison to a Title VII decision by the 7th Circuit in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, 853 F.3d 339 (7th Cir. 2017), which held similarly that sexual orientation discrimination is a form of sex discrimination, thus potentially joining in the widening split of federal appellate courts over a broad construction of Title VII to extend to both kinds of claims.

Alliance Defending Freedom’s involvement as volunteer counsel for the funeral home makes it highly likely that the Supreme Court will be asked to review this ruling.

The lawsuit was filed by the EEOC, which sued after investigating Aimee Stephens’ administrative charge that she had been unlawfully terminated by the Michigan funeral home.  After the district court ruled in favor of the funeral home, the EEOC appealed to the 6th Circuit and Stephens, represented by the ACLU, was granted standing to intervene as co-plaintiff in the appeal.

“While living and presenting as a man,” wrote Judge Moore, “she worked as a funeral director at R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc., a closely held for-profit corporation that operates three funeral homes in Michigan.  Stephens was terminated from the Funeral Home by its owner and operator, Thomas Rost, shortly after Stephens informed Rost that she intended to transition from male to female and would represent herself and dress as a woman while at work.”

Rost identifies himself as a Christian who espouses the religious belief that “the Bible teaches that a person’s sex is an immutable God-given gift,” and that he would be “violating God’s commands if he were to permit one of the Funeral Home’s funeral directors to deny their sex while acting as a representative of the organization” or if he were to “permit one of the Funeral Home’s male funeral directors to wear the uniform for female funeral directors while at work.”

“In particular,” related Judge Moore, “Rost believes that authorizing or paying for a male funeral director to wear the uniform for female funeral directors would render him complicit ‘in supporting the idea that sex is a changeable social construct rather than an immutable God-given gift.’”

As such, Rost claimed that his company’s obligation to comply with Title VII should be excused in this case because of the later-enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which provides that the federal government may not substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion unless it has a compelling justification for doing so, and that the rule the government seeks to apply is narrowly tailored to burden religious practice no more than is necessary to achieve the government’s goal.

The funeral home moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Title VII does not ban discrimination against a person because they are transgender or transitioning, that the funeral home could reasonably require compliance with its dress code, and that requiring the funeral home to allow a “man dressed as a woman” to serve as a funeral director would substantially burden the funeral home’s free exercise of religion, as defined by Rost, and violate its rights under RFRA.

Prior to the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751, there was no Supreme Court authority for the proposition that a funeral home, or any other for-profit business, could claim to “exercise religion,” but in that case the Court ruled that because business corporations are defined as “persons” in the U.S. Code, they enjoy the same protection as natural persons under RFRA.  At least in the case of a closely-held corporation such as Hobby Lobby, with a small group of shareholders who held the same religious beliefs on the issue in question – a federal regulation requiring that employer health plans cover various forms of contraception to which Hobby Lobby’s owners took exception on religious grounds – the corporation was entitled to protection under RFRA based on the religious views of its owners.  The Harris Funeral Home is analogous to Hobby Lobby Stores, albeit operating on a smaller scale, so Rost’s religious views on gender identity and transitioning can be attributed to the corporation for purposes of RFRA.

Interestingly, this would not have been an issue in the case had Stephens brought the lawsuit on her own behalf, without the EEOC as a plaintiff.  The 6th Circuit has interpreted RFRA to impose its restriction on the federal government but not on private plaintiffs suing to enforce their rights under federal statutes.  Since EEOC is the plaintiff, however, this is a case of the government seeking to impose a burden on the free exercise of religion by a business corporation, and RFRA is implicated.

District Judge Cox, bound by 6th Circuit precedent to find that Stephens had a potentially valid discrimination claim under Title VII (see Smith v. City of Salem, Ohio, 378 F. 3d 566 (2004)), nonetheless concluded that ordering a remedy for Stephens would substantially impair the Funeral Home’s rights under RFRA, granting summary judgment to the funeral home.  In another contested issue in the case, Judge Cox ruled that the EEOC could not pursue in this lawsuit a claim that the Funeral Home’s policy of paying for male employees’ uniforms but not for female employees’ uniforms violated Title VII’s sex discrimination provision.  Cox held that this claim did not grow naturally out of the investigation of Stephens’ discrimination charge, and so must be litigated separately.

The 6th Circuit reversed on both points.  As to the uniform issue, the Court found that the EEOC’s investigation of Stephens’ discrimination claim naturally led to investigating the company’s uniform policy, since the question of which uniform Stephens could wear was directly involved in Rost’s decision to terminate her.  The court reversed the summary judgment and remanded the question back to the district court to determine whether the uniform policy, which the funeral home has since modified to provide some subsidy for the cost of women’s uniforms, violates Title VII.

More significantly, the court found that Judge Cox erred on several key points in his analysis of the company’s summary judgment motion.

Cox had determined that the 6th Circuit does not recognize gender identity claims under Title VII, as such, but in rejecting a prior motion to dismiss the case had concluded that Stephens could proceed on the theory that she was fired for failing to conform to her employer’s stereotype about how men are supposed to present themselves and dress in the workplace.  Rost stated in his deposition that he objected to men dressing as women – which is how he views Stephens in light of his religious belief that gender identity is just a social construct that violates God’s plan and not a reality.

After reviewing the court’s prior transgender discrimination decisions, Judge Moore concluded that the EEOC’s view of the statute to cover gender identity discrimination directly, without reference to sex stereotypes, is correct.  “First,” she wrote, “it is analytically impossible to fire an employee based on that employee’s status as a transgender person without being motivated, at least in part, by the employee’s sex.”

She referred to the 7th Circuit’s Hively decision, a sexual orientation case, which employed the same reasoning to find that Title VII covers sexual orientation claims.  “Here, we ask whether Stephens would have been fired if Stephens had been a woman who sought to comply with the women’s dress code.  The answer quite obviously is no.  This, in and of itself, confirms that Stephens’ sex impermissibly affected Rost’s decision to fire Stephens.”

The court also referred to a landmark ruling by the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia, Schroer v. Billington, 577 F. Supp. 2nd 293 (D.D.C. 2008), which allowed a transgender discrimination claim against the Library of Congress, which had withdrawn an employment offer when informed that the applicant was transitioning.

And, of course, the court noted the Supreme Court’s Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins ruling (490 U.S. 228 (1989)), stating that Title VII requires “gender” to be “irrelevant to employment decisions.”  Moore wrote, “Gender (or sex) is not being treated as ‘irrelevant to employment decisions’ if an employee’s attempt or desire to change his or her sex leads to an adverse employment decision.”

Of course, Moore noted, transgender discrimination implicates the sex stereotype theory as well.  Referring to Smith v. City of Salem, she wrote, “We did not expressly hold in Smith that discrimination on the basis of transgender status is unlawful, though the opinion has been read to say as much – both by this circuit and others,” and then proceeded to say as much!  “Such references support what we now directly hold: Title VII protects transgender persons because of their transgender or transitioning status, because transgender or transitioning status constitutes an inherently gender non-conforming trait.”

In light of this holding, the funeral home had to be found in violation of the statute unless it was entitled to some exception or some affirmative defense.  One argument made in an amicus brief in support of the funeral home suggested that a person employed as a funeral director could be covered by the constitutionally-mandated ministerial exception recognized by the Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012).  The Supreme Court said that it is a component of free exercise of religion that if somebody is being employed to perform religious functions, the government could not dictate the hiring decision.  The court rejected this defense, noting that the funeral home has conceded that it is not a “religious organization” and was not claiming the “ministerial exception” for any of its employees.  Furthermore, even if the funeral home tried to claim the exception, the court found it would not apply to the position of a funeral director in a for-profit funeral home business.  Stephen was not employed to serve a religious function, and the duties of a funeral directly only incidentally involved any religious function in the way of facilitating participation of religious funeral celebrants.

Turning to the RFRA defense, the court first dispensed with the argument that as Stephens had intervened as a co-plaintiff, RFRA had been rendered irrelevant because this was no longer purely a government enforcement case.  The EEOC remains the principal appellant in the case, and the court would not dismiss the RFRA concern on that basis.

However, the court found, significantly, that requiring the funeral home to employ Stephens after her transition would not impose a “substantial” burden within the meaning of RFRA.  The funeral home argued that the “very operation of the Funeral Home constitutes protected religious exercise because Rost feels compelled by his faith to serve grieving people through the funeral home, and thus requiring the Funeral Home to authorize a male funeral director to wear the uniform for female funeral directors would directly interfere with – and thus impose a substantial burden on – the Funeral Home’s ability to carry out Rost’s religious exercise of caring for the grieving.”

Rost suggested two ways this would impose a substantial burden.  First, he suggested, letting Stephens dress as a woman “would often create distractions for the deceased’s loved ones and thereby hinder their healing process (and the Funeral Home’s ministry),” and second, “forcing the Funeral Home to violate Rost’s faith would significantly pressure Rost to leave the funeral industry and end his ministry to grieving people.”  The court did not accept either of these as “substantial within the meaning of RFRA.”

For one thing, a basic tenet of anti-discrimination law is that businesses may not rely on customer preferences or biases as an excuse to refuse to employ people for a reason forbidden by Title VII.  Courts have ruled that even if it is documented that employing somebody will alienate some customers, that cannot be raised as a defense to a valid discrimination claim.  “We hold as a matter of law,” wrote Moore, “that a religious claimant cannot rely on customers’ presumed biases to establish a substantial burden under RFRA.”

The court rejected Rost’s argument that the EEOC’s position put him to the choice of violating his religious beliefs by, for example, paying for a women’s uniform for Stephens to wear, or otherwise quitting the funeral business.  The court pointed out that there is no legal requirement for Rost to pay for uniforms for his staff.  This is distinguishable from the Hobby Lobby case, where the issue was a regulation requiring employers to bear the cost of contraceptive coverage.  Further, wrote Moore, “simply permitting Stephens to wear attire that reflects a conception of gender that is at odds with Rost’s religious beliefs is not a substantial burden under RFRA,” because “as a matter of law, tolerating Stephens’ understanding of her sex and gender identity is not tantamount to supporting it.”

Since the court found no substantial burden, it did not necessarily have to tackle the question of the government’s justification for imposing any burden at all.  But with an eye to a likely appeal of this case, the court went ahead to determine whether, if it is wrong about this and the Supreme Court were to find that this application of Title VII to Rost’s business does impose a substantial burden, it passes the strict scrutiny test established by RFRA.

As to this, the court reached perhaps its most significant new ruling in the case: Having identified gender identity claims as coming within the ambit of sex discrimination claims, the court had to determine whether the government has a compelling interest and that enforcing Title VII is the least intrusive way of achieving that interest.  Even the Funeral Home was willing to concede that on a general level the government has a compelling interest, expressed through Title VII, in eradicating sex discrimination in the workplace, but the Funeral Home argued that interest did not justify this particular case, compelling it to let a man dress as a woman while working as a funeral director.  “The Funeral Home’s construction of the compelling-interest test is off-base,” wrote Moore.  “Rather than focusing on the EEOC’s claim – that the Funeral Home terminated Stephens because of her proposed gender nonconforming behavior – the Funeral Home’s test focuses instead on its defense that the Funeral Home merely wishes to enforce an appropriate workplace uniform.  But the Funeral Home has not identified any cases where the government’s compelling interest was framed as its interest in disturbing a company’s workplace policies.”  The question, according to the court’s interpretation of Supreme Court precedents, is whether “the interests generally served by a given government policy or statute would not be ‘compromised’ by granting an exemption to a particular individual or group.”

“Failing to enforce Title VII against the Funeral Home means the EEOC would be allowing a particular person – Stephens – to suffer discrimination, and such an outcome is directly contrary to the EEOC’s compelling interest in combating discrimination in the workforce.” And, continued Moore, “here, the EEOC’s compelling interest in eradicating discrimination applies with as much force to Stephens as to any other employee discriminated against based on sex.”

The court specifically rejected the Funeral Home’s argument that its religious free exercise rights should take priority as being derived from the 1st Amendment, because that would go directly against Supreme Court precedent, which has rejected the idea that individuals and businesses generally enjoy a 1st Amendment right to refuse to comply with laws because of their religious objections.  Congress did not have authority, in the first version of RFRA that it passed and that was invalidated by the Supreme Court, to overrule a Supreme Court decision.  What RFRA does is to create a statutory right, not to channel a constitutional right, and the statutory right is circumscribed to cases where a federal law imposes a substantial burden on free exercise without having a compelling justification for doing so.  This does, not, according to the 6th Circuit, elevate a business’s free exercise rights above an individual’s statutory protection against discrimination.  (Indeed, Justice Samuel Alito said as much in his Hobby Lobby opinion for the Supreme Court, albeit in the context of race discrimination.)

Finally, as required by RFRA, the court found that requiring compliance with Title VII was the least restrictive means available for the government to achieve its compelling interest in eradicating employment discrimination because of sex.  The district court had suggested that the EEOC could pursue a less restrictive alternative by getting the parties to agree to a gender-neutral uniform for the workplace, thus removing Rost’s objection to a “man dressed as a woman.”  “The district court’s suggestion, although appealing in its tidiness, is tenable only if we excise from the case evidence of sex stereotyping in areas other than attire,” wrote Judge Moore.  “Though Rost does repeatedly say that he terminated Stephens because she ‘wanted to dress as a woman’ and ‘would no longer dress as a man,’ the record also contains uncontroverted evidence that Rost’s reasons for terminating Stephens extended to other aspects of Stephens’s intended presentation.”  It was not just about the uniforms.

The court could have reversed the summary judgment and sent the case back to the district court to reconsider its holding and determine whether a trial was needed, but in fact there are no material facts in dispute once one treats the 6th Circuit’s opinion as presenting the law of the case on interpreting Title VII and RFRA.  With no material facts to be resolved at this stage, the 6th Circuit directly granted summary judgment to the EEOC on its claim that the Funeral Home violated Title VII and is not entitled to a defense under RFRA.  Stephens won on the merits, unless the Funeral Home is successful in getting the Supreme Court to take the case and reverse the 6th Circuit’s decision.

The appeal was argued for the EEOC by Anne Noel Occhialinio, and for Stephens by ACLU attorney John A. Knight.  Douglas G. Wardlow of Alliance Defending Freedom argued on behalf of the Funeral Home.  The case attracted amicus briefs from Lambda Legal, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Private Rights/Public Conscience Project (New York) and various law firms offering pro bono assistance to amici on briefs.

Judge Moore was appointed to the court by President Bill Clinton.  The other judges on the unanimous panel were Helene N. White, appointed by President George W. Bush, and Bernice W. Donald, appointed by President Barack Obama.  Showing a recent trend in diversifying the federal bench, the panel was, unusually, made up entirely of female circuit judges.  As a result of several appointments by President Obama, half of the active judges on the 6th Circuit are women, the only federal appellate court yet to achieve gender parity.