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Gavin Grimm Victorious: U.S. Appeals Court Reject’s School Board’s Anti-Trans Restroom Policy

Posted on: August 29th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

Capping litigation that began in 2015, a three-judge panel of the Richmond-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled by a vote of 2-1 on August 26 that the Gloucester County (Virginia) School Board violated the statutory and constitutional rights of Gavin Grimm, a transgender boy, when it denied him the use of boys’ restrooms at Gloucester County High School.  Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 27234, 2020 Westlaw 5034430.

This may sound like old news, especially since other federal appellate courts, most notably the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit, the Chicago-based 7th Circuit, the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit and the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit, have either ruled in favor of the rights of transgender students or rejected arguments against such equal access policies by protesting parents and cisgender students. But Grimm’s victory is particularly delicious because the Trump Administration intervened at a key point in the litigation to switch sides in the case after the Obama Administration had supported Grimm’s original lawsuit.

Grimm, identified as female at birth, claimed his male gender identity by the end of his freshman year, taking on a male name and dressing and grooming as male. Before his sophomore year, he and his mother spoke to the high school principal and secured agreement that he could use boys’ bathrooms, which he did for several weeks without incident.  But as word spread that a transgender boy was using the facilities, parents became alarmed and deluged the school board with protests, leading to two stormy public meetings and a vote that transgender students in the district (of which Grimm was then the only known one) were restricted to using a single-occupant restroom in the nurse’s office or restrooms consistent with their “biological sex,” which the district defined as the sex identified at birth.

After Grimm filed his lawsuit represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) seeking a court order to allow him to resume using the boys’ restrooms in his school, the Obama Administration weighed in with a letter to the court siding with Grimm’s argument that the school board’s policy violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bans sex discrimination against students.  Despite this positive letter, the district judge granted the school board’s motion to dismiss the Title IX claim, reserving judgment on Grimm’s alternative claim under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Grimm appealed the dismissal.  A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit then ruled that the district court should have deferred to the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX and not dismissed that claim.  The school board sought review from the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted the petition and scheduled the case for argument in March 2017.  The timing of this argument guaranteed that Grimm would never get to use the boys’ restrooms at the high school before graduating that spring.

After the Trump Administration took office in January 2017, the Justice and Education Departments announced that they were “withdrawing” the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX.  Without taking a formal position on the interpretive question, they criticized the Obama Administration as inadequately reasoned.  But subsequently, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced his disagreement with the Obama Administration’s interpretation of Title IX and more generally the prior administration’s position that transgender people are protected by all federal laws banning sex discrimination.  In an October 2017 memorandum to all executive agencies, Sessions announced that laws banning sex discrimination apply only narrowly to a claim that an individual suffered discrimination because he was a biological male or she was a biological female, defined by how they were identified at birth.

Since the 4th Circuit had premised its reversal of the dismissal of Grimm’s Title IX claim on its conclusion that the district court should have deferred to the Obama Administration’s interpretation, the basis for that ruling was effectively gone.  The Solicitor General formally notified the Supreme Court, which cancelled the scheduled hearing, vacated the 4th Circuit’s decision, and sent the case back to the District Court without any ruling by the Supreme Court.  In the interim, the district court had responded to the 4th Circuit’s decision by issuing an injunction requiring the school board to let Grimm use the boys’ restrooms, but that was stayed while the appeal was pending in the Supreme Court and within months of the Supreme Court’s action of March 2017, Grimm had graduated from high school.

The Gloucester County School Board than urged the district court to dismiss the case as moot, since Grimm was no longer a student.  Grimm insisted that the case should continue, because he should be entitled to seek damages for the discrimination he suffered and he wanted to be able to use the male facilities if he returned to the school as an alumnus to attend events there.  The mootness battle raged for some time, the complaint was amended to reflect the new reality that Grimm was no longer a student, and a new issue emerged when Grimm requested that the school issue him an appropriate transcript in his male name identifying him as male, since he was stuck in the odd situation of being a boy with a high school transcript identifying him as a girl.  By this time, he had gotten a court order approving his name change and a new birth certificate, but the school persisted in denying him a new transcript, raising frivolous arguments about the validity of the new birth certificate.

Thus repurposed, the case went forward.  Ultimately the district court ruled in Grimm’s favor on both his statutory and constitutional claims, but the school board was not willing to settle the case, appealing again to the 4th Circuit.  The August 26, 2020, ruling is the result.

The ACLU publicized this case heavily from the beginning, winning national media attention and an army of amicus parties filing briefs in support of Grimm’s claim along the away.  On May 26, 2020, the case was argued in the 4th Circuit before a panel of two Obama appointees, Judge Henry Floyd and Judge James A. Wynn, Jr., and an elderly George H.W. Bush appointee, Judge Paul Niemeyer (who had dissented from the original 4th Circuit ruling in this case).  In light of the rulings by other courts of appeals on transgender student cases and the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, on June 25, 2020, holding that discrimination because of transgender status is discrimination “because of sex” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the result in this new ruling was foreordained.

Judge Floyd’s opinion for the panel, and Judge Wynn’s concurring opinion, both go deeply into the factual and legal issues in the case, constituting a sweeping endorsement of the right of transgender students to equal treatment in schools that receive federal funding, a prerequisite for coverage under Title IX.  Furthermore, public schools are bound by the Equal Protection Clause, and the court’s ruling on the constitutional claim was just as sweeping.

The court first rejected the school board’s argument that the case was moot, with Grimm having graduated and now being enrolled in college.  Since damages are available for a violation of Title IX, it was irrelevant that Grimm was no longer a student.  He had been barred from using the boys’ restrooms for most of his sophomore and all of his junior and senior years.  Even though the district court granted him only nominal damages, his claim for damages made this a live controversy, as did the school’s continuing refusal to issue him a proper transcript, which the court held was also illegal.

Turning to the merits, Judge Floyd first tackled the Equal Protection claim.  The court rejected the School Board’s argument that there was no discrimination against Grimm because he was not “similarly situated” to cisgender boys.  Judges Floyd and Wynn firmly asserted that Grimm is a boy entitled to be treated as a boy, regardless of his sex as identified at birth.  This judicial endorsement of the reality of gender identity is strongly set forth in both opinions.

Judge Niemeyer’s dissent rests on a Title IX regulation, which Grimm did not challenge, providing that schools could maintain separate single-sex facilities for male and female students, and the judge’s rejection that Grimm is male for purposes of this regulation.  Niemeyer insisted that Title IX only prohibits discrimination because of “biological sex” (a term with the statute does not use).  As far as he was concerned, the school did all that the statute required it to do when it authorized Grimm to use the nurse’s restroom or the girls’ restrooms.  But the majority of the panel accepted Grimm’s argument that the school’s policy subjected him to discriminatory stigma, as well as imposing physical disadvantages.  As a boy, he would not be welcome in the girls’ restroom, and the nurse’s restroom was too far from the classrooms for a break between classes.  As a result, he generally avoided using the restroom at school, leaving to awkward situations and urinary tract infections.

As the case unfolded, the school constructed additional single-user restrooms open to all students regardless of sex and made some modifications to the existing restrooms to increase the privacy of users, but the single-user restrooms were not conveniently located and cisgender students did not use them, reinforcing the stigma Grimm experienced.  Stigma due to discrimination has long been recognized by the federal courts as the basis for a constitutional equal protection claim.

The school’s actions undermined Judge Niemeyer’s argument that the school board policy was justified by the need to protect the privacy of cisgender students, an argument that has been specifically rejected by the 3rd and 9th Circuit cases when they rejected cases brought by parents and cisgender students challenging school policies that allowed transgender students to use appropriate restrooms.  Judge Niemeyer colorfully wrote, “we want to be alone — to have our privacy — when we ‘shit, shower, shave, shampoo, and shine.’”  (Do high school buys shave in the boys’ room as a general practice?)  But the panel smajority was not persuaded that it was necessary to exclude Grimm from the boys’ restrooms to achieve this goal.  After all, the only way Grimm as a transgender boy could relieve himself was by using an enclosed stall, lacking the physical equipment to use a urinal, so he would not be disrobing in front of the other students.  (Let’s be real here.)

Judge Floyd’s opinion did not rely on the Bostock ruling for its constitutional analysis, instead noting that many circuit courts of appeals have accepted the argument that government policies discriminating because of gender identity are subject to heightened scrutiny, and are thus presumptively unconstitutional unless they substantially advance an important state interest.  The majority, contrary to judge Floyd, did not think that excluding Grimm advanced an important state interest, especially after the School Board had altered the restrooms to afford more privacy, an obvious solution to any privacy issue.

Turning to the statutory claim, Judge Floyd pointed out that judicial interpretation of Title IX has always been informed by the Supreme Court’s Title VII rulings on sex discrimination, so the Bostock decision carried heavy precedential weight and the school board’s arguments on the constitutional claim were no more successful on this claim.  The School Board lacked a sufficient justification under Title IX to impose unequal access to school facilities on Grimm.

At this point, the Gloucester County School Board can read the writing on the wall and concede defeat, or it can petition the 4th Circuit for en banc review (review by the full 15-judge bench of the circuit court), or it can seek Supreme Court review a second time.  As to the en banc situation, the 4th Circuit is one of the few remaining federal circuit courts with a majority of Democratic appointees, as several of Bill Clinton’s appointees are still serving as active judges and all six of Obama’s appointees are still serving, leaving a majority of Democratic appointees on the full bench, so seeking en banc review, which requires that a majority of the active judges vote to review the case, would be a long shot.

On the other hand, Justice Neil Gorsuch’s decision for the Supreme Court in Bostock refrained from deciding – since it wasn’t an issue in that case – whether excluding transgender people from restroom facilities violates sex discrimination laws, and this case would provide a vehicle for addressing that issue.  It takes only four votes on the Supreme Court to grant review of a lower court case, so there may be another chapter in the saga of Grimm’s legal battle. It is also possible that the St. Johns County School District in Florida, which lost in the 11th Circuit in a virtually identical ruling, might also seek Supreme Court review, so one way or another, this issue may yet get on to the Court’s Docket this term or next.

ACLU attorney Joshua Block has been representing Grimm throughout the struggle, but the case was argued in May by cooperating attorney David Patrick Corrigan, a litigation specialist at the Richmond firm of Harman Clayton Corrigan & Wellman.  A local Richmond firm represented the School Board, confronting Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring supporting Grimm with an amicus brief.  The overwhelming majority of amicus briefs filed, many by state attorneys general, sided with Grimm.

Federal Court Blocks Trump Regulation Revoking Health Care Protections for Transgender People

Posted on: August 18th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Frederic Block ruled on August 17 that a new Trump Administration Rule that rescinded the Obama Administration’s Rule prohibiting gender identity discrimination in health care will not go into effect on August 18, its scheduled date, and he granted a preliminary injunction against the new Rule’s enforcement.  Judge Block sits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn. Walker v. Azar, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 148141.

After President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law in 2010, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) decided to adopt a rule providing an official interpretation of the non-discrimination requirements contained in Section 1557 of that statute.  Section 1557 incorporates by reference a provision of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which forbids discrimination because of sex in educational institutions that get federal funding.  In the past, HHS and federal courts have looked to decisions interpreting the sex discrimination provision in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans sex discrimination in employment, in interpreting Title IX.

By the time HHS had finished writing its rule in 2016, both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and several federal appeals courts had interpreted Title VII to ban discrimination because of an individual’s gender identity.  The Obama Administration followed these precedents and included a prohibition on gender identity discrimination in its ACA rule.  Several states and a religious health care institution then joined together to challenge the rule before a federal district judge in Fort Worth, Texas, who was notoriously receptive to issuing nationwide injunctions against Obama Administration policies, and the court was true to that practice, holding that the inclusion of gender identity was contrary to the “original meaning” of the term “because of sex” when it was adopted by Congress in Title IX back in 1972.  The case is Franciscan Alliance, Inc. v. Burwell, 227 F. Supp. 3d 660 (N.D. Tex. 2016).

The new Trump Administration rule that was challenged in the August 17 ruling was intended by the Department of Health and Human Services to codify the decision by district court in Franciscan Alliance.  Franciscan Alliance was issued in December 2016, just weeks before the Trump Administration took office.  Had Hillary Clinton been elected president, the incoming administration would likely have appealed the Fort Worth decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit. But the Trump Administration informed the district court that it was not appealing and instead would not enforce the Obama Administration rule and would eventually replace it.

Judge Block emphasized this history as he set out his reasons for finding that Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and its volunteer attorneys from Baker & Hostetler LLP, were likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that the Trump Rule was both inconsistent with the ACA, and that HHS was “arbitrary and capricious” in adopting this new Rule and publishing it just days after the Supreme Court had ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that discrimination against a person because of their transgender status was “necessarily discrimination because of sex.”

The Supreme Court had heard oral arguments in the Bostock case, which concerned the interpretation of Title VII, on October 8, 2019, while HHS was working on its proposed new rule.  The HHS attorneys knew that the Supreme Court would be issuing a decision by the end of its term, most likely in June 2020.  One of the three cases consolidated in Bostock involved a gender identity discrimination claim by Aimee Stephens against Harris Funeral Homes. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had sued the employer on Stephens’ behalf.  The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Harris Funeral Homes violated Title VII by discharging Stephens for transitioning, and the Supreme Court granted review on the specific question whether discrimination because of transgender status violates Title VII.  HHS concedes in the “preamble” of its new rule that interpretations of Title IX (and thus Section 1157) generally follow interpretations of Title VII.

October 2017, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memorandum to the Executive Branch explaining the Trump Administration’s position that bans on sex discrimination in federal law did not extend to claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity.  Thus, although the U.S. Solicitor General normally represents federal agencies such as the EEOC when their decisions are appealed to the Supreme Court, that office actually joined in  arguing on behalf of Harris Funeral Homes, leaving it to the ACLU LGBT Rights Project to represent Aimee Stephens before the Supreme Court.

The Trump Administration was so confident that the Court would rule against Stephens that it decided to go ahead with its new Rule, effectively revoking the Obama Administration’s Rule, although the “preamble” did acknowledge that a decision by the Supreme Court in the Title VII case could affect the interpretation of Section 1557.  LGBTQ rights advocates waited impatiently for a ruling in the Bostock case as the Court began to wind up its Term in June.  The Trump Administration was no more patient, announcing its new Rule a few days before the Supreme Court announced its decision in Bostock, apparently assuming that the Court would rule against Stephens.  Without publicly reacting to the Supreme Court’s opinion, or even revising its new Rule to acknowledge that the Trump Administration’s interpretation of “discrimination because of sex” had been rejected by the Supreme Court (in an opinion by Trump’s first appointee to the Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch), HHS went ahead and published the new Rule five days later.

Over the following weeks, challenges to the new Rule were filed in four different federal courts.  HRC filed suit on behalf of two transgender women who had encountered discrimination from health care institutions covered by the ACA.  Judge Block found that their experiences gave them formal standing to challenge the new Rule. Judge Block reached his decision the day before the new Rule was to go into effect.

He found that the well established practice of following Title VII interpretations in sex discrimination cases was likely to be followed under the ACA, just as it was under Title IX, and thus the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in their claim that the new Rule was inconsistent with  the statute.  He noted that just two weeks earlier, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals had followed the Bostock decision in finding that a Florida school district violated Title IX by denying appropriate restroom access to a transgender student.

Furthermore, the failure of the new rule, published after the Bostock decision, to mention that ruling or to offer any reasoned explanation why it should not be followed, was likely to be found to be “arbitrary and capricious,” so the adoption of the new Rule probably violated the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), the federal law that details how federal agencies are to proceed in adopting new rules and regulations or rescinding old ones.

Because of the December 2016 ruling in Franciscan Alliance and the subsequent non-enforcement policy by the Trump Administration, the Obama Administration’s Rule has not been enforced by HHS since December 2016.  But the ACA allows individuals who suffer discrimination to sue on  their own behalf to enforce the statute, and there have been numerous lawsuits under Section 1557 successfully challenging exclusion of transgender health care from coverage under health insurance policies that are subject to the ACA.

Judge Block’s stay of the effective date and injunction against enforcing the new Rule gives the green light to HHS to resume enforcing Section 1557 in gender identity discrimination cases consistent with the Bostock ruling.  While there are probably plenty of career agency officials in the HHS Office of Civil Rights who would like to do so, any significant effort in that direction seems unlikely so long as Trump remains in office.  For now, the main impact of Judge Block’s order will be to clear a potential obstacle for transgender litigants under Section 1557, as the opinion persuasively explains how Justice Gorsuch’s reasoning in Bostock compels protecting transgender health care patients under the ACA.

The  practical effect of Judge Block’s ruling now is to place the burden on HHS if it wants to  continue defending its new Rule.  HHS must provide a reasoned explanation to the Court about why the Bostock interpretation of “discrimination because of sex” should not be followed under Section 1557.  The simplest way for HHS to proceed consistent with the court’s order would be to strike those portions of the preamble discussing this subject, and to substitute a simple statement that Section 1557’s ban on discrimination because of sex includes claims of discrimination because of sexual orientation  or gender identity consistent with  the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of similar statutory language in the Bostock case.

Supreme Court Holds that Federal Law Bans Anti-LGBT Employment Discrimination in Historic 6-3 Ruling

Posted on: June 17th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on June 16, 2020, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, 590 U.S. — , 2020 WL 3146686, 2020 U.S. LEXIS 3252, that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act bans employment discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, was the fifth landmark in a chain of important LGBT rights victories dating from 1996, continuing the Court’s crucial role in expanding the rights of LGBT people. The ruling culminated seventy years of struggle and activism seeking statutory protection for sexual minorities against employment discrimination, dating from the 1950s, when early LGBT rights organizations always listed such protection as one of their goals, even before the federal government began to address the issue of employment discrimination statutorily in 1964.
Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch wrote the Court’s opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts (a George Bush appointee), and the four Justices appointed by Democratic presidents: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer (Bill Clinton) and Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan (Barack Obama).
Samuel Alito, appointed to the Court by George Bush, wrote an outraged dissenting opinion, joined by Clarence Thomas, who was appointed by George H.W. Bush. Trump-appointee Brett Kavanaugh penned a more temperate dissent, concluding with a surprising salute to the movement’s achievement of this milestone.
Justice Gorsuch’s emergence as the writer of this opinion caught many by surprise, since he is an acolyte of Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he replaced on the Court. Despite Scalia’s avowed commitment to many of the interpretive principles that Gorsuch also embraces, one could not imagine Scalia writing such an opinion, especially in light of the vitriolic dissenting opinions that he wrote to all four prior landmark opinions.
Because Chief Justice Roberts voted with the majority of the Court, he was in the position to assign the majority opinion to Gorsuch. Had this been a 5-4 ruling without Roberts, Justice Ginsburg, the senior justice in the majority, would have decided which justice would write for the Court. In the two marriage equality rulings, Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose approach to gay issues had been established in earlier cases, assigned the opinions to himself as senior justice in the majority. Ginsburg might well have assigned the opinion to Gorsuch in any event, to help secure his vote, especially as it was possible that if Ginsburg or one of the other Democratic appointees wrote an opinion embracing arguments Gorsuch could not accept, he might either drift away or write a concurrence in the judgment, resulting in a plurality opinion. It is even possible that Roberts’ vote came from his institutional concern that such a significant ruling have the weight of a 6-3 vote. Since there were already five votes in favor of the employee parties, his vote would not affect the outcome, but would give him some control over the opinion through his assignment to Gorsuch.
The 1996 landmark gay rights ruling was Romer v. Evans, a decision that established for the first time that a state’s discrimination against “homosexuals” violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, striking down a homophobic amendment that Colorado voters had added to their state constitution, forbidding the state from providing anti-discrimination protection to gay people. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for a 6-3 Court found that the only explanation for the Colorado amendment’s adoption was animus against lesbians and gay men, never a constitutionally valid reason, so the Court did not expressly consider whether heightened scrutiny would apply to a sexual orientation discrimination claim.
The second landmark decision was Lawrence v. Texas (2003), declaring that a state law making gay sex a crime violated the guarantee of liberty in the 14th Amendment’s Due Process clause, and overruling a 1986 decision, Bowers v. Hardwick, which had rejected such a challenge to Georgia’s penal law.
The third landmark, United States v. Windsor, held in 2013 that the federal government must recognize same-sex marriages that states had authorized, striking down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had put into the United States Code a definition of marriage limited to different-sex couples. The Court held that this violated the Due Process and Equal Protection rights of same-sex couples under the 5th Amendment, again without explicitly engaging in discussion of whether a law discriminating based on sexual orientation is subject to heightened scrutiny.
The fourth landmark, Obergefell v. Hodges, held in 2015 that gay people enjoyed the same fundamental right to marry that had previously been guaranteed to straight people under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment. Since the Court dealt with this as a fundamental rights case, both from the perspectives of due process and equal protection, it again avoided discussing whether the discriminatory aspect of the case implicated a suspect or quasi-suspect classification of sexual orientation.
In each of these cases, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Jr., wrote for the Court. The decisions were noteworthy as being the product of an otherwise conservative Court whose Republican appointees outnumbered the Democratic appointees. In Windsor and Obergefell, Kennedy was the only Republican appointee to side with the Democratic appointees to make up the 5-4 majority of the Court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was appointed by Ronald Reagan, cast a sixth vote for the prevailing parties in Romer and Lawrence. Her replacement, Justice Alito, dissented in Windsor and Obergefell, as well as Bostock.
The Bostock decision, incorporating two other cases, Altitude Express v. Zarda and R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, was the first major LGBT rights decision by the Court since Kennedy retired and Trump made his second appointment to the Court, seemingly locking in a solid conservative majority that was expected not to be so receptive to LGBT rights claims. With the retirement of Kennedy, it was widely believed that it would be unlikely for a gay rights claim to carry a majority of the Court.
Consequently, when the Court announced more than a year ago that it would review these three cases, tremors ran through the LGBT rights legal community. Although progress had been made in persuading the Obama Administration – including the EEOC – and the lower federal courts that Title VII’s ban on “discrimination because of an individual’s sex” could be interpreted to forbid discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, it was difficult for people to count a fifth vote to add to the presumed votes of the Democratic appointees on the Court. Chief Justice Roberts had emphatically dissented from the Windsor and Obergefell rulings, and LGBT rights groups had strongly opposed the nominations of Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, based on their extremely conservative records as court of appeals judges, which was seemingly borne out in Gorsuch’s case by his dissent in Pavan v. Smith (2017), taking the transparently incorrect position that the Court had not clearly held in Obergefell that same-sex marriages must be treated the same as different-sex marriages for all legal purposes, including birth certificates, something specifically mentioned in Kennedy’s Obergefell opinion. Nobody really thought it possible that Alito or Thomas would ever cast a vote in favor of an LGBT employee’s claim, but Kavanaugh and Gorsuch were a question marks, as was the unpredictable chief justice, despite his anti-LGBT voting record up to that time.
The only facts about these cases that were relevant to the Supreme Court’s decision were that the three employees whose discrimination claims ended up before the Court claimed that they were fired because of their sexual orientation (Gerald Bostock and Donald Zarda) or their gender identity (Aimee Stephens) in violation of Title VII’s ban on sex discrimination. The merits of the Title VII claims had not been decided in Bostock or Zarda, because the district courts in both cases found the claims not to be covered under Title VII and dismissed them. Aimee Stephens’ Title VII claim survived a motion to dismiss, however; the district court found that although Title VII, standing alone, was violated in her case (but solely using a gender stereotype theory rather than holding the gender identity claims are necessarily covered by Title VII), but that the employer, a deeply religious funeral home owner, had a valid defense under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and so granted judgement to the employer. The 11th Circuit affirmed the dismissal in Bostock, as did a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit in Zarda, but the 2nd Circuit ultimately reversed the dismissal en banc. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which had sued on Stephens’ behalf, appealed to the 6th Circuit, which reversed the district court, finding the RFRA defense invalid, and ruling that Stephens’ gender identity discrimination claim had been proven. The 6th Circuit also rejected the district court’s conclusion that the EEOC, representing Stephens, was limited to a gender stereotyping claim, expanding on its prior precedents to hold that gender identity claims are necessarily covered by Title VII as a form of sex discrimination. Thus, the only final merits ruling in the cases before the Court was the EEOC’s (and Stephens’) victory in the 6th Circuit. Stephens had intervened at the 6th Circuit, represented by the ACLU, making her a respondent alongside the EEOC in the Supreme Court.
After the Trump Administration took office, the Solicitor General took over the case from the EEOC and, consistent with the Administration’s view that Title VII did not forbid gender identity discrimination, effectively “changed sides,” arguing that the employer should have prevailed. But, surprisingly inasmuch as the employer was being represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative religious freedom litigation group, the employer had not sought review of the 6th Circuit’s rejection of its RFRA defense, so the only question before the Court was the Title VII interpretation issue. Stephens was left to defend the 6th Circuit’s ruling, with the EEOC, represented by the Solicitor General, on the other side. The Solicitor General also participated as an amicus on behalf of the government in the Bostock and Zarda cases.
There was a big difference between the earlier landmark cases and this case. The four landmarks all involved interpretations of Constitutional Due Process and Equal Protection, and were decided, in sometimes quite emotional opinions by Justice Kennedy, based on concepts of human dignity and equality. The Bostock case, by contrast, was a matter solely of statutory interpretation, and solely of Title VII (despite Justice Alito’s decision to dwell on the RFRA question in his dissent). Perhaps surprisingly, two of the most ardent “textualists” on the Court, Trump’s appointees, parted company about how to apply that approach in determining the meaning of a 55-year-old statute.
Textualists contend that statutory interpretation is a matter of figuring out what the meaning of statutory language was at the time it was adopted. Extraneous information, such as congressional committee reports, hearing transcripts, speeches on the floor of Congress or statements inserted into the Congressional Record, are generally rejected by textualists, who argue, as Scalia memorably wrote in a 1998 opinion also involving Title VII and sex discrimination, that “it is ultimately the provisions of our laws rather than the principal concerns of our legislators by which we are governed.”
Gorsuch and Kavanaugh (as well as Alito) swear allegiance to this principle, but it took them in different directions in this case. Gorsuch, who had signaled this result as a possibility during the oral argument on October 8 last year, inclined towards a literalistic approach to the words of Title VII. While claiming that he was trying to determine “the ordinary public meaning” of the words at the time they were enacted, he rejected the argument that this meant that sexual orientation and gender identity could not possibly be covered, because he was persuaded by various arguments and examples that the statute as properly understood has always prohibited discrimination against people because of their “homosexuality” or “transgender status.” He wrote, “an employer who intentionally treats a person worse because of sex – such as firing the person for actions or attributes it would tolerate in an individual of another sex – discriminates against that person in violation of Title VII.”
Having accepted that point, he found persuasive several examples offered by counsel for Bostock and Zarda. Most prominent was the example of two employees, a man and a woman, with equally good qualifications, work records, and so forth, both of whom are attracted to men. The employer will hire the woman but reject the man. Because the employer will tolerate attraction to men by women but not by men, the employer’s refusal to hire the man is discrimination because of the man’s sex.
Stating his holding more generally, he wrote: “An employer violates Title VII when it intentionally fires an individual employee based in part on sex. It doesn’t matter if other facts besides the plaintiff’s sex contributed to the decision. And it doesn’t matter if the employer treated women as a group the same when compared to men as a group.” The idea is that sex is supposed to be irrelevant to a personnel decision unless, as the statute provides, the employer can prove that sex is a bona fide occupational qualification for the job in question, an affirmative defense provision that Gorsuch neglects to mention. But Gorsuch agreed that making a personnel decision because the person is gay or transgender makes sex relevant to the decision, and thus is generally prohibited by Title VII. Or, as he put it quite strongly, “Sex plays a necessary and undisguisable role in the decision, exactly what Title VII forbids.”
The issue, wrote Gorsuch, is whether the plaintiff’s sex is a “but-for” cause of the challenged personnel action, but it doesn’t have to be the sole cause, because the statute does not expressly require that. “When an employer fires an employee because she is homosexual or transgender,” he explained, “two causal factors may be in play, both the individual’s sex and something else (the sex to which the individual is attracted or with which the individual identifies). But Title VII doesn’t care. If an employer would not have discharged an employee but for that individual’s sex, the statute’s causation standard is met, and liability may attach.” Because all three cases being argued involved discharges, it is not surprising that Gorsuch mentions only discharges, but the clear important of the decision is that all the personnel actions coming within the scope of Title VII come within this ruling.
Responding to the argument that this could not possibly be the meaning of a statute passed in 1964, Gorsuch insisted that it has always been the meaning, it just was not recognized as such by the courts until more recently. He characterized this as the “elephant in the room” that everybody pretended was not really there. It was now time to recognize the presence of the elephant.
Aside from some passing references, Gorsuch’s interpretive discussion, and the examples he presented, focused mainly on the sexual orientation issue, but he was careful to mention gender identity or transgender status as well as sexual orientation whenever he stated his conclusions.
Alito unkindly stated in his dissent that Gorsuch’s conclusion that sexual orientation and gender identity are covered by Title VII is “preposterous.” Alito’s focus on the “original meaning” of statutory language, which he documents at length, shows as a matter of the historical record that in 1964 gay people were widely reviled as sick criminals, so it is impossible in his view to read the statutory language of 1964 as forbidding discrimination on this ground. Furthermore, he pointed out, as of 1964 the public’s awareness of transgender individuals was slight at best. Indeed, the very terms “transgender” and “gender identity” were not even used until much later. That a statute enacted in 1964 could be interpreted as prohibiting discrimination on this ground could not possibly accord with its “ordinary public meaning” at that time, he argued. But Gorsuch countered that Alito was talking about legislative intent, not contemporary meaning of the statutory language. As Scalia wrote so often in cases where he rejected evidence of legislative history, when the law is reduced to a written text, it is the text that is the law. Gorsuch even cited a few sources to suggest that some people at or near the time of enactment actually believed that gay or transgender people might have discrimination claims under Title VII.
“Ours is a society of written laws,” Gorsuch wrote. “Judges are not free to overlook plain statutory commands on the strength of nothing more than suppositions about intentions or guesswork about expectations. In Title VII, Congress adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
Reading Alito’s dissenting opinion may induce nausea in the reader, so graphic is his recounting of the horrendously homophobic views of the government and the public towards LGBT people in 1964, but he recites them to make his point that prohibition of discrimination on these grounds could not possibly be a correct textualist interpretation of this language from his perspective. He started his dissent pointedly by saying that the Court was engaged in “legislation,” not interpretation. And he concentrated on shooting holes in Gorsuch’s examples of the situations that led Gorsuch to conclude that discrimination because of homosexuality or transgender identity is, at least in part, sex discrimination.
Alito also wandered far from the central question in the cases, interjecting discussion of various issues likely to arise as a result of the decision, such as hardship for employers with religious objections to homosexuality or transgender identity (such as the employer in the Harris Funeral Homes case), and objections by co-workers to transgender employees using bathrooms and locker rooms. Gorsuch rejoined that these were questions for another day, not presently relevant to decide the appeals before the Court, noting particularly that Harris Funeral Homes had not asked the Court to review the 6th Circuit’s decision rejecting its RFRA defense. Alito was definitely putting down markers for the future cases that the Court may confront.
Kavanaugh makes some of the same points as Alito in his dissenting opinion, but it is notable that he did not join Alito’s dissent. This may be at least in part a generational thing. Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are considerably younger than Alito. By the time they were in college and law school, there were out gay people around and, on a personal level, they undoubtedly both agreed that as a matter of politics it would be appropriate for Congress to ban such discrimination. They just differed on whether the Court could reach the same result through interpretation of the 55-year old law. Kavanaugh noted that three-judge panels of ten circuit courts of appeals had rejected this interpretation. 30 judges out of 30, he wrote, more than once in his opinion, as if the unanimity of an incorrect interpretation somehow turned it into a correct interpretation. Obviously, these judges did not recognize the “elephant in the room”!
For Kavanaugh, this was really a “separation of powers” issue. The question for the Court, he wrote, was “Who decides?” The legislature has the power to make law, while the courts are limited to interpreting the statutes passed by the legislature. Here, agreeing with Alito, he asserted that the Court’s decision was violating the separation of powers. And he disagreed with Gorsuch’s approach to textualism in this case, find it too narrowly focused on individual works, thus losing the context necessary in his view to determine the contemporary “public meaning” of the overall provision in 1964.
However, Kavanaugh concluded his dissent revealing his political, as opposed to interpretive, preferences. “Notwithstanding my concern about the Court’s transgression of the Constitution’s separation of powers, it is appropriate to acknowledge the important victory achieved today by gay and lesbian Americans,” he wrote. “Millions of gay and lesbian Americans have worked hard for many decades to achieve equal treatment in fact and in law. They have exhibited extraordinary vision, tenacity, and grit – battling often steep odds in the legislative and judicial arenas, not to mention in their daily lives. They have advanced powerful policy arguments and can take pride in today’s results. Under the Constitution’s separation of powers, however, I believe that it was Congress’s role, not this Court’s, to amend Title VII.” Kavanaugh’s dissent largely ignored transgender people. His omission of them from this paragraph is inexplicable in light of the scope of the Court’s opinion and their activist role over the past several decades in seeking protection against discrimination.
Interestingly, Gorsuch premised the case entirely on a strict textualist reading of the statute, avoiding reliance on the alternative theories that the EEOC and some lower courts embraced. One such theory was gender stereotyping, grounded in the Court’s 1989 decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, in which the Court held that an employer who takes an adverse action because an employee fails to comport with stereotypes about women or men has exhibited an impermissible motivation for its actions under Title VII. Another theory, first developed in race discrimination cases, was that discharging a worker because he or she was engaged in an interracial relationship was a form of discrimination because of race. Neither this “associational theory” nor the sex stereotyping theory entered into Gorsuch’s rationale for binding Title VII applicable in Bostock.
The Court’s opinion has the immediate effect of extending protection to LGBT workers in the majority of states that do not ban sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in their state civil rights laws, but there remain significant gaps in protection. Title VII applies to employers with at least 15 employees, state and local government employees, and federal employees. It does not apply to the uniformed military (so this decision does not directly affect Trump’s transgender service ban), or to religious organizations in their policies on “ministerial employees.” Thus, a substantial portion of the nation’s workforce does not gain any protection from discrimination by this interpretation of Title VII, because a substantial portion of the workforce is employed by smaller businesses or is classified as non-employee contractors. Furthermore, as Gorsuch noted briefly but Alito expounded at length, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) might be interpreted to “supplant” the Title VII protections in particular cases.
The potential application of RFRA is worth noting. Reading Gorsuch’s opinion, one might immediately identify this as a potential “poison pill.” A few years ago, in its Hobby Lobby decision, the Supreme Court suddenly discovered that business corporations could argue that a particular policy mandated by another federal law unduly burdened the employer’s free exercise of religion, and they might thereby escape compliance with the law if the government fell short in showing that its policy was the least restrictive alternative to achieve a compelling government interest. (In Harris Funeral Homes, the 6th Circuit interpreted RFRA in this context and found that the government’s compelling interest in preventing sex discrimination could be achieved only by an outright prohibition, without an exception for business owners who had religious objections.) Although Justice Alito’s opinion for the Court in Hobby Lobby rejected the idea that an employer could make such an argument in defense of a race discrimination claim, Justice Ginsburg pointed out in dissent that Alito’s opinion failed to address the issue of sexual orientation, pointing to cases where businesses claimed a religiously-based right to discriminate against gay people. This is an issue that is hardly settled, and Gorsuch’s reference to the possibility of RFRA as a “super statute” to “supplant” Title VII protections in “appropriate cases” is ominous. Where a case does not involve “ministerial employees,” the full weight of Title VII normally applies to the issue of employment discrimination by religious institutions whether because of race or color, sex or national origin. Shortly, the Court will be ruling on some new cases about the scope of this “ministerial” exception, and may issue a decision that bears on cases in which, for example, gay employees of Catholic educational institutions have been terminated for entering same-sex marriages.
In addition, of course, Title VII only applies to employment decisions. It doesn’t affect decisions by companies about hiring people as non-employee independent contractors, and it doesn’t apply to the myriad other ways that LGBT people encounter discrimination through denial of services, housing, and other privileges of living in our society. This decision does not eliminate the need for enactment of the Equality Act, a bill that would amend numerous provisions of federal law to extend anti-discrimination protection to LGBT people, while amending Title VII to make explicit the coverage of sexual orientation and gender identity. Perhaps most importantly in terms of gap-filling, the Equality Act would add “sex” to the prohibited grounds of discrimination in federal public accommodations law while at the same time expanding the concept of a public accommodation, and would also require federal contractors and funding recipients not to discriminate on these grounds.
Alito’s dissent suggested that the reasoning of the Court’s opinion could protect LGBT people from discrimination under all those other federal statutes that address discrimination because of sex. That would fill a significant part of the gap left by this decision, but not all of it, because, as explained in the previous paragraph, the Civil Rights Act provisions on public accommodations do not forbid sex discrimination and small employers are not covered. Alito appended to his dissent a list of more than 100 federal statutory provisions that he claimed would be affected by this decision, among them Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, under which courts have addressed disputes involving transgender students. This provides a useful “to do” list for the LGBT rights litigation groups, finding cases to firmly establish that the Court’s conclusion in Bostock applies to all those other protections. Closing the gaps through passage of the Equality Act and through passage of state and local laws to cover employers not subject to Title VII must be an ongoing project. There also may be an opening to persuade state courts that they should adopt similar interpretations of the prohibition of sex discrimination under their state laws.
An early test may come as courts confront challenges to a new regulation announced by the Department of Health and Human Services, just days before this decision was announced, reversing an Obama Administration rule under the Affordable Care Act’s antidiscrimination provision and “withdrawing” protection against discrimination under that Act for transgender people. Lawsuits were quickly threatened challenging this regulation. The ACA incorporates by reference the sex discrimination ban in Title IX, so federal courts should read this consistentlyly with Bostock and hold that the regulatory action violates the statute.
Another important point to bear in mind is that coverage of a form of discrimination by the statute does not inevitably lead to a ruling on the merits for the employee. Title VII litigation can be very difficult, and many employees lose their cases early in the process due to procedural roadblocks or, in the case of sex discrimination claims, to the courts’ view that sex may be a “bona fide occupational qualification” in a particular case. When plaintiffs attempt to represent themselves, they may be felled by statutes of limitations, shortcomings in their factual pleadings, or limited resources to investigate the facts and articulate a convincing claim as required by federal civil pleading standards. Furthermore, many employers require employees to execute arbitration agreements when they are hired, so plaintiffs seeking to get their proverbial “day in court” may be disappointed to discover that they are relegated to arguing in private before an arbitrator, in many cases carefully selected by the employer based on his or her “track record” in ruling on employee claims. The road to vindication is not always a smooth one.
The Court’s decision was immediately controversial with certain conservative and religious groups, some of which quickly made spurious claims about how this ruling could interfere with their free exercise and free speech rights, but public opinion polls have consistently shown overwhelming support for outlawing employment discrimination against LGBT people for many years now, so there was no startled outcry by the public at large in the days following the ruling. Those who are cynical about the idea of judging by “neutral principals of law” have often exclaimed that the Supreme Court follows the election returns, so they may characterize this opinion as more political than legal, but the “bipartisan” nature of the line-up of justices would rebut that contention. And, notably, many of the court of appeals decisions that have ruled this way in recent years have also been bipartisan. The opinion, in the matter of fact way that Gorsuch writes about “homosexual” and “transgender” people in the opinion, comes across as impassive by comparison to the florid prose of Kennedy, but it gets the job done.
Kavanaugh’s closing paragraph says that “gays and lesbians” should take pride in this victory, which was hard-earned through decades of political, legal and personal struggle. A brief pause to take pride in this ruling is appropriate, but pushing ahead to fill the remaining gaps in full legal equality is essential. A battle has been won, but not yet the war.
Unfortunately, neither Donald Zarda nor Aimee Stephens lived to learn of their victories. Zarda, who had been fired from a job as a sky-diving instructor, died in a sky-diving accident while his case was pending. Stephens was gravely ill by the time of the oral argument (which she attended, although wheelchair bound), and passed away just weeks before the Court’s decision. Gerald Bostock, however, gave delighted interviews to the press, and was looking forward to the remand back to the district court so that he would get his opportunity to prove that he was the victim of unlawful discrimination.
The Court was flooded with amicus briefs in these cases, too numerous to mention individually here. On October 8, 2019, the Court first heard arguments on the sexual orientation issue, with Pamela S. Karlen representing Bostock and the Estate of Zarda, Jeffrey M. Harris representing the Clayton County and Altitude Express, and Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco presenting the Trump Administration’s position in support of the employers. Next the Court heard arguments on the gender identity issue, with David Cole representing Stephens, John J. Bursch representing Harris Funeral Homes, and again Solicitor General Francisco representing the Trump Administration’s position that gender identity discrimination is not covered by Title VII. The EEOC, the respondent in the case, was not separately represented and did not support the government’s position, evidenced by the government’s briefs, which unusually did not list attorneys from the agency.

Alaska Federal Court Says Employer’s Denial of Insurance Coverage for Sex-Reassignment Surgery Violates Federal Law

Posted on: March 10th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

A federal district court in Anchorage, Alaska, has ruled that a public employer’s health benefits plan violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it categorically denies to employees, whether male or female, coverage for the surgical procedures used to effect gender transition.  According to the March 6 opinion by Senior U.S. District Judge H. Russel Holland, the employer’s exclusion of this coverage is “discriminatory on its face and is direct evidence of sex discrimination.”  The ruling does not require all employers to provide coverage for gender reassignment surgery, but it requires that they not discriminate because of an employee’s sex in deciding which procedures are covered.

Judge Holland’s decision has potentially wide application because Title VII applies to all employers with 15 or more employees, including both businesses and government employers at the federal, state and local levels.  Although a trial court ruling is not a precedent binding on other courts, Judge Holland’s explanation for his ruling may provide a persuasive precedent both for courts confronting similar claims and for employers deciding how to respond to employees seeking such coverage under their employee benefit plans.

Lambda Legal filed suit on behalf of Jennifer Fletcher, who works as a legislative librarian for the State of Alaska.  Fletcher is enrolled in AlaskaCare, a self-funded employee health care plan that is administered by Aetna Life Insurance Company.  The Plan “provides benefits for medical services and procedures that are medically necessary and not otherwise excluded from the Plan,” according to the State’s written responses to discovery questions posed by Fletcher’s attorney from Lambda Legal, Tara L. Borelli.

During discovery in this case, the State conceded that for “some” transgender individuals, surgical procedures for gender transition may be “medically necessary,” but the plan formally excludes performance of the procedures in question for that purpose.  The procedures in question are covered for employees if they are necessary to address a medical issue other than gender transition.  None of the procedures at issue in this case are used solely in connection with gender transition.

Fletcher was diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2014 and began the process of social, legal, and medical transition under professional care, starting hormone therapy that year.  By 2016, she and her health care provider agreed that gender transition-related surgery was necessary for her transition.  In her complaint, Fletcher claimed that such treatment was “essential” for her “well-being.”

In November 2016, Fletcher contacted Aetna to discuss coverage for her surgical treatment, but was told that the Plan did not cover it, and would not in 2017.  Although the Plan has since been modified to allow coverage for some aspects of gender transition, hormones and counseling, the express exclusion of surgery continues.

Fletcher’s request for coverage spurred the State to study the cost of eliminating this exclusion, for which it engaged a consultant, who advised that the annual increase in claims on the Plan would be $60,000.  Although there was internal discussion about this within the State government, no further action was taken to change the Plan to cover surgical transition procedures.

Because AlaskaCare would not cover her surgery, Fletcher obtained her surgery in Thailand, where the procedure is less expensive than if it were performed without insurance coverage in the Unites States.  She filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging that the Plan’s exclusion violates Title VII’s ban on discrimination in “terms and conditions of employment” because of an individual’s sex.  The State’s simplistic response was that because the Plan excludes coverage for any surgical procedure for purposes of gender transition, whether the employee involved was identified as male or female at birth, there was no discrimination “because of sex.”  The EEOC rejected this argument, and issued a finding that the State’s policy violates Title VII.  On May 17, 2019, the EEOC notified Fletcher that its attempt to “conciliate in this matter” with the State was unsuccessful, authorizing her to file a lawsuit.

Fletcher’s complaint alleged that the State discriminated against her because of her “sex” which, she alleged, includes “discrimination on the basis of gender nonconformity, gender identity, transgender status, and gender transition.”  This list covered all the bases of different theories that federal courts have used at various times to evaluate Title VII claims by transgender plaintiffs.  After discovery, Fletcher moved for summary judgment on the question whether the Plan exclusion violates Title VII, while the State moved for summary judgment to dismiss the entire lawsuit on the merits.

As it turned out, the list of alternative coverage theories in Fletcher’s complaint was unnecessary, because Judge Holland concluded that the exclusion was, on its face, discrimination “because of sex.”He based this conclusion on the State’s concession that all the surgical procedures involved in Fletcher’s transition would be covered if they were performed for reasons other than gender transition.

Thus, if Fletcher was identified as female at birth but needed the vaginoplasty procedure for some reason other than transition, she would be covered, and indeed that procedure is employed to deal with some medical conditions experienced by women.  Because she was identified as male at birth, however, coverage for the the procedure was denied, because its only purpose for somebody identified as male at birth would be for gender transition.  To Judge Holland, this was clearly an exclusion specifically because of the sex of the employee, and one had to go no further into theories of gender nonconformity, gender identity or transgender status in order to bring her claim within the coverage of the statute.

Under Title VII, any “disparate treatment” between men and women regarding a particular term or benefit of employment is illegal unless it can be justified as a “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOQ) that is “reasonably necessary to the normal operation or essence of an employer’s business.”  In this case, Holland commented, “Defendant has not argued, nor could it, that there is any BFOQ for the disparate treatment at issue here.  As such, plaintiff is entitled to summary judgment that defendant violated her rights under Title VII.”

While granting Fletcher’s motion, the court simultaneously denied the State’s summary judgment motion.  Still to be determined is the remedy for the violation.  As Fletcher has already had the surgical treatment, the court needs to decide what to award for compensation for violation of the statute.  In light of the court’s decision on the merits of Fletcher’s claim, it is likely that the parties will negotiate a settlement on damages.

Judge Holland was appointed to the District Court by President Ronald Reagan and took senior status in 2001.

Federal Court in Trans Military Case Refuses to Delay Discovery Further

Posted on: February 10th, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

On Friday, February 7, US District Judge Marsha Pechman issued yet another in a series of Orders on discovery in Karnoski v. Trump, 2020 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21813 (W.D. Wash.), one of the four challenges to the constitutionality of Trump’s transgender military service ban in its current incarnation, referred to as the Mattis Plan.

Pechman, backed up by a 9th Circuit panel, has determined that the ban discriminates based on gender identity and is subject to heightened scrutiny under the 5th Amendment’s equal protection requirement, and judging from this opinion she is clearly getting fed up by the Justice Department’s delay strategy in the case.

Since the Supreme Court stayed Judge Pechman’s preliminary injunction (and ultimately, all the preliminary injunctions were lifted), the Mattis Plan went into effect last April while the litigation continues, including clear discrimination against applicants and service members due to their gender identity. The Justice Department’s strategy now is to avoid a merits ruling against the government by stretching out discovery as long as possible.

The district courts have already determined that various deliberative process privilege claims asserted by the government are invalid in this suit, where the question boils down to whether the Mattis Plan is an expression of ideology, pure and simple, or rather is based on objective facts. Only discovery of internal communications and sources allegedly relied upon in formulating the policy can reveal the answer to the degree necessary to constitute proof in a court. But they keep stalling.

Judge Pechman issued an order late last year compelling certain disclosure by a date specified in December. Rather than comply, the Justice Department moved for “clarification” and a “stay pending appeal.” That is, they want to keep off responding as long as they can, and then get the court to delay further while they appeal every discovery ruling to the 9th Circuit, building in several more months for delay.

Pechman is having none of it: Her February 7 order provides some “clarification” and denies the stay. “Because Plaintiffs have overcome the deliberate process privilege for these documents and this dispute has been pending for nearly two years, the Court will not issue a stay for an unspecified amount of time while Defendants decide whether to appeal,” she wrote. “This is an ongoing process and until the process is complete it is wasteful to appeal one segment at a time.” She also pointed out that the government missed a 14-day deadline if it wanted her to reconsider her prior discovery order. She ordered the government to produce all the documents covered by the order by February 14.

Karnoski and co-plaintiffs are represented by Lambda Legal and Outserve-SLDN (so named when the case was filed, now the Modern Military Association).

Kentucky Supreme Court Avoids Ruling on Clash Between Free Speech and Anti-Discrimination Law in T-Shirt Case

Posted on: November 3rd, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

In a case that drew 26 amicus briefs – an unusually high number for an argument in a Midwestern state high court, the Kentucky Supreme Court found an off-ramp from having to decide whether a small business that produces custom t-shirts has a right to refuse an order to print a shirt with whose message the business owner disagrees in Lexington-Fayetteville Urban County Human Rights Commission v. Hands on Originals, 2019 Ky. LEXIS 431, 2019 WL 5677638 (October 31, 2019).  The court decided that the appellant, the local human rights commission that had ruled against the business, had no jurisdiction because the entity that filed the discrimination complaint in the case was not an “individual” within the meaning of the local civil rights ordinance.

The case originated in February 2012 when a representative of the Gay & Lesbian Services Organization (GLSO), an advocacy organization in Lexington that was planning for its fifth annual Lexington Pride Festival, came to Hands On Originals, the t-shirt business, with an order for t-shirts to be used in connection with the Festival.  Hands on Originals is a small business with three owners, all of whom identify as Christians who operate the business consistently with their understanding of the Bible.  Their website has a non-discrimination statement, which includes “sexual orientations”, but says that “due to the promotional nature of our products, it is the prerogative of Hands on Originals to refuse any order that would endorse positions that conflict with the convictions of the ownership.”  The design that GLSO presented bore the name “Lexington Pride Festival” with rainbow-colored circles around an enlarged number “5” in recognition of the 5th year of the Festival, and no other text.  The employee who took the order reviewed it and quoted a price.

“The following month,” wrote Justice Laurence V. VanMeter in the court’s opinion, “a different GLSO representative contacted Hands On about the price quote and spoke with Adamson [one of the owners], who had not yet viewed the t-shirt design.  Adamson inquired into what the Pride Festival was and learned that the t-shirts would be in support of the LGBTQ+ community.  Adamson advised the GLSO representative that because of his personal religious beliefs, Hands On could not print a t-shirt promoting the Pride Festival and its message advocating pride in being LGBTQ+.  Adamson offered to refer GLSO to another printing shop.”  In the event, after word about this got out, a Cincinnati business printed the t-shirts for GLSO free of charge.  But GLSO’s president filed a complaint on behalf of the organization with the local human rights commission, charging violation of the Lexington-Fayetteville Human Rights Ordinance, which forbids discrimination against any individual based on their sexual orientation or gender identity by public accommodations.

The commission ruled in favor of the complainants, but was overruled by the Fayette Circuit Court, which instructed the commission to dismiss the charges.  The commission and GLSO appealed.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court, but the panel split, producing three opinions, out of which a majority concluded that the anti-discrimination provision was not violated by Hands On engaging in viewpoint or message censorship as a non-governmental entity.

Justice VanMeter’s opinion focused on the language of the ordinance, which provides that an “individual” claiming to be aggrieved by an unlawful practice can file a complaint with the commission.  The court concluded, by examining both the context of the ordinance and the contents of other states referenced in the ordinance, that “only an individual – being a single human – can bring a discrimination claim” under the ordinance.  Although an individual, a representative of GLSO, had filed the original complainant with the Commission, it was not filed in his individual capacity but rather as a representative of GLSO.  Thus, because “GLSO itself was the only plaintiff to file a claim” and “it did not purport to name any individual on whose behalf it was bringing the claim,” therefore GLSO “lacked the requisite statutory standing” to invoke the jurisdiction of the Human Rights Commission.

The court pointed out that Hands On “argued first to the Hearing Commissioner that GLSO, as an organization, did not have standing under the ordinance to bring a claim.”  The Hearing Commissioner rejected that argument, reaching a conclusion that the court rejects in this opinion: that an “individual” as named in the ordinance could also be an organization.  Hands On continued to push this argument through all levels of review, so it was not waived when the Kentucky Supreme Court agreed to review the lower court decisions.

“While this result is no doubt disappointing to many interested in this case and its potential outcome,” wrote Justice VanMeter, “the fact that the wrong party filed the complaint makes the discrimination analysis almost impossible to conduct, including issues related to freedom of expression and religion.  Normally in these cases, courts look to whether the requesting customer, or some end user that will actually use the product, is a member of the protected class.  And even when the reason for the denial is something other than status (conduct, for example), ways exist to determine whether the individual(s) (the requesting customer(s) or end user(s)) was actually discriminated against because of the conduct cited is so closely related to that individual’s status.  But in either scenario (whether the person allegedly discriminated against is the requesting customer or some end user) the individual is the one who has filed the lawsuit, so the court can properly determine whether that person has been discrimination against.”

VanMeter insisted that the court finds “impossible to ascertain” in this case whether the organization that filed the discrimination charge is a “member of the protected class.”  “No end user may have been denied the service who is a member of the protected class, or perhaps one was.  If so, then the determination would have to follow whether the reason for denial of service constitutes discrimination under the ordinance, and then whether the local government was attempting to compel expression, had infringed on religious liberty, or had failed to carry its burden” under the law.  “But without an individual . . .  this analysis cannot be conducted.”

This reasoning strikes us as hair-splitting in the extreme, but is not surprising considering that courts prefer to avoid deciding controversial issues if they can find a way to do so.  The Lexington-Fayetteville ordinance, by its terms, does not have protected classes.  Like the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, it is a “forbidden grounds” measure, not a “protected class” measure.  Everybody, regardless of their race, is protected from race discrimination, for example.  There are no “protected classes” who have an exclusive claim to being protected against discrimination on any of the grounds mentioned in the ordinance.  Thus, VanMeter’s explanation is premised on a misconception of the ordinance.  But, as a decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court on a question of state law, it is final unless or until it is overruled by the Kentucky Supreme Court or rendered irrelevant by an amendment to the ordinance.  As it stands, however, it creates a large loophole in the coverage of the ordinance that was probably not intended by the local legislative bodies that enacted the measure.

Six members of the seven-member court sat in this case.  Four members of the court concurred in VanMeter’s opinion.  Justice David Buckingham wrote a separate concurring opinion.  Although he agreed with the court that GLSO lacked standing to file the charge, he wanted to express his view that the “Lexington Fayette Human Rights Commission went beyond its charge of preventing discrimination in public accommodation and instead attempted to compel Hands On to engage in expression with which it disagreed.”  He found support in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1995 decision overruling the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that the organizers of the Boston Saint Patrick’s Day Parade case had violate the state’s human rights law by excluding a gay Irish group from marching in the parade, and a ruling earlier this year by the 8th Circuit court of Appeals reversing a district court decision concerning a videographer who sought a declaration that his business would not be required under Minnesota’s civil rights laws to produce videos of same-sex marriages.  In a lengthy opinion, Justice Buckingham cited numerous cases supporting the proposition that the government crosses an important individual freedom line when it seeks to compel speech.  “Compelling individuals to mouth support for view they find objectionable violates that most cardinal constitutional command,” he wrote, “and in most contexts, any such effort would be universally condemned.”  While reiterating his support for the ruling on “standing” by the majority of the court, he wrote, “if we were to reach the substantive issues, I would affirm the Fayette Circuit Court’s Opinion and Order,” which was premise in this First Amendment free speech argument.

Because the court’s decision is based entirely on its interpretation of the local ordinance and various Kentucky statutory provisions and avoids any ruling on a federal constitutional issue, it is not subject to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which a straightforward affirmance of the Court of Appeals ruling on the merits would have been.

Most of the amicus briefs were filed by conservative and/or religious groups seeking affirmance of the Court of Appeals on the merits, and it is clear that the amici were determined to make this a major “culture wars” case in the battle against LGBTQ rights.  One amicus brief was filed on behalf of ten states that do not forbid sexual orientation or gender identity discrimination in their state civil rights laws.  There were also amicus briefs from progressive groups (including progressive religious groups) urging the court to reverse the Court of Appeals on the merits.  The only LGBT-specific organizational brief was filed by Lambda Legal.

Texas Federal Court Vacates Transgender Protection under Obamacare

Posted on: October 18th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

Reed O’Connor, a federal trial judge in the Northern District of Texas, ruled on October 15 in Franciscan Alliance v. Azar, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177871, 2019 WL 5157100, that the Obama Administration’s regulation providing that the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a/k/a “Obamacare”) prohibits health care providers and institutions from discriminating against patients because of “gender identity” or “termination of pregnancy” is invalid.  The judge “vacated” the rule, effectively ordering the government not to enforce it, although he declined to issue an injunction to that effect.

Government agencies and courts in several states have relied on the regulation, “Nondiscrimination in Health Programs & Activities,” 45 C.F.R. Sec. 92, in several important cases, ruling, for example, that state Medicaid programs and the insurance coverage that states provide to their employees had to provide coverage for medically necessary gender transition treatment.  The regulation has also been invoked in lawsuits challenging the refusal of private employers to cover such treatment, and theoretically also could be invoked to challenge refusals by health care providers to perform abortions, although it is uncertain whether it could apply to such refusals.

O’Connor’s ruling was not a real surprise, since he issued a “nationwide” preliminary injunction barring the government from enforcing the regulation on December 31, 2016, just as it was set to go into effect on January 1, 2017.  Consequently, it is uncertain how federal enforcement proceedings would have fared in the courts.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) formally adopted the regulation on May 16, 2016, as an official interpretation of the ACA’s anti-discrimination language, which mentions neither gender identity nor abortions.  Unlike most federal anti-discrimination statutes that list the prohibited grounds of discrimination, the ACA instead listed four other federal anti-discrimination laws, and provided in Section 1557 that “an individual shall not, on the grounds prohibited under” the listed statutes, “be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under, any health program or activity, any part of which is receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The statutes listed were Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs that received federal funds, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination by educational institutions that receive federal funds, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prohibits discrimination against people aged 40 or older by companies that employ 20 or more people, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits unjustified discrimination against people with disabilities by programs that receive federal funding.  HHS interpreted Title IX’s sex discrimination ban to include discrimination against an individual because of their “gender identity” or “termination of a pregnancy” in the context of the ACA.

Franciscan Alliance, an operator of faith-based health care institutions, and two other private sector plaintiffs, joined together with eight states to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Wichita Falls, Texas, shortly after the regulation was published, challenging HHS’s adoption of the regulation under the Administrative Procedure Act (APA) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).  Franciscan Alliance specifically alleged that providing gender transition treatment violated its religious beliefs, and that the regulation would require them to perform abortions, also against their religious beliefs. The state plaintiffs, as well as Franciscan Alliance, argued that the regulation was not based on a legitimate interpretation of the discrimination prohibited by Title IX. They also raised constitutional arguments that the court didn’t have to address, since it found the regulation to be invalid under these two federal statutes.

Concerned that the new regulations might be struck down, the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas (ACLU) and River City Gender Alliance (RCGA) filed motions in September 2106 to intervene as parties to help defend the regulation.  Judge O’Connor reserved judgment on this motion pending the filing of answer to the complaint by the federal government, but allowed ACLU and RCGA to participate as amicus parties and file briefs on the pending preliminary injunction motion.

Judge O’Connor developed a reputation during the Obama Administration for his willingness to issue nationwide preliminary injunctions against Obama Administration initiatives, usually at the behest of conservative state governments or faith-based organizations.  Because he is the only judge on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas who is assigned to sit several days a month in the satellite courthouse in Wichita Falls, Texas, a small city with a population of about 100,000 (roughly the size of South Bend, Indiana, for example), Judge O’Connor’s judicial propensities help to explain why several cases of national importance were filed by conservative opponents of the Obama Administration in that rather obscure courthouse.  Lawyers call this “forum shopping” — seeking out a particular court or judge because they are highly likely to rule in favor of the plaintiffs based on their past performance.

While this litigation was going on, Judge O’Connor became embroiled in a Title IX lawsuit brought by states challenging the Obama Administration’s interpretation guidance to school districts concerning their obligations to transgender students.  In that litigation, he found that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their argument that Title IX did not apply to gender identity discrimination, issuing a nation-wide preliminary injunction barring the Education Department from requiring school districts to refrain from discriminating against transgender students.

When he issued his preliminary injunction in this case, O’Connor concluded that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in showing that the ban on sex discrimination in Title IX did not extend to gender identity discrimination (as he held in the schools case), and that failing to incorporate religious exemption language from Title IX in the regulation violated the intent of Congress in its method of specifying prohibited grounds for discrimination under the ACA.  He also ruled that it was likely that attempts by the  government to enforce the regulation against faith-based health care providers would burden their free exercise of religion without sufficient justification under RFRA.  If the agency exceeded its statutory authority, its adoption of the regulation would violate the APA.

Just weeks after O’Connor issued his preliminary injunction, Donald Trump took office and appointed new leadership for the various federal agencies that interpret and enforce the federal anti-discrimination statutes.   On May 2, 2017, the new leadership at HHS filed a motion asking the court to “remand” the challenged regulation back to the agency, because the new administration was going to be reviewing all of the Obama Administration’s regulatory actions and might make the case “moot” by rescinding the regulation.  Judge O’Connor granted that motion on July 10, 2017, and said he would “stay” further proceedings in the case while HHS decided whether to revoke the regulation.

Surprisingly, in light of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ memorandum from the fall of 2017 opining that federal laws banning sex discrimination do not ban gender identity discrimination, as well as the Trump Administration’s repeatedly articulated hostility toward abortion, HHS has not yet undertaken the formal steps necessary under the APA to repeal or amend the challenged regulation, and evidently Judge O’Connor finally lost patience and decided to issue a ruling on the merits.  Having received briefing by the parties on the legal questions involved, he determined that he could render a ruling on the government’s motion for summary judgment, producing the decision published on October 15.

He referred back to his earlier preliminary injunction ruling, doubling down on his conclusion that when Congress passed Title IX in 1972, it knew that the EEOC and federal courts had been rejecting transgender individuals’ sex discrimination claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, so as of 1972 Congress would believe that passing a new federal statute outlawing sex discrimination would not outlaw discrimination because of gender identity.

Getting further into the RFRA analysis, he found that the government does have a compelling interest in prohibiting discrimination in health care, but that the regulation did not impose the “least restrictive alternative” as required by that statute. Because there are non-faith based health care providers who will provide gender transition treatment and abortions, he wrote, it is not necessary to burden faith-based providers in order to make it possible for individuals to get those treatments.  They can just go elsewhere.

Thus, Judge O’Connor extended his earlier opinion to hold, as a final ruling on the merits, that the inclusion of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” in the regulation exceeded the interpretive authority of HHS in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, and that enforcement of those provisions against faith-based health care providers would violate their rights under RFRA.

Judge O’Connor found that because the defendants (the Trump Administration) was no longer affirmatively defending the regulation, ACLU and RGCA were entitled as of right to intervene as co-defendants in order to provide a defense. This was an important step, since only an actual party can appeal a decision. However, Judge O’Connor pointed out that the intervenors will have to establish individual standing to do so if they want to take this case to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The district court could just rely on their allegations that they have members who would be adversely affected by the regulation being struck down in order to grant their intervention motion, but their standing to appeal the ruling might be challenged in the 5th Circuit which, for example, has vacated a ruling against Mississippi’s draconian anti-LGBT statute on grounds that the organizational plaintiffs did not have “standing” to challenge the law before it had gone into effect.

Judge O’Connor did not strike down the regulation in full, merely holding that the inclusion of “gender identity” and “termination of pregnancy” was not authorized by the statute and thus that those portions of the regulation are “vacated.”  He refrained from issuing a nationwide injunction, presumably because the defendant – formally, the Trump Administration – is clearly going to comply, since it is no longer arguing that the regulation is lawful in light of the Sessions memorandum and the position it is arguing in the Harris Funeral Homes case at the Supreme Court.

O’Connor’s action immediately raises the question whether his ruling is binding outside the Northern District of Texas.  Striking down the “unlawful” portions presumably does not just mean for purposes of one federal district.  Normally, the government would appeal such a ruling, but in this case, it seems unlikely that HHS or the Justice Department is going to appeal this ruling, which leaves that determination up to the ACLU of Texas and RGCA, in light of all the circumstances, including a national election just a year from now.

Federal Court Narrows Discovery in Trans Military Case, but Rejects Government’s Broad Privilege Claims

Posted on: September 20th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, ruling in the first of four pending lawsuits challenging the current version of the military policy on transgender service, issued a wide-ranging ruling on September 13 attempting to settle some of the remaining problems in deciding what information the plaintiffs are entitled to obtain through discovery as the case continues. The case, renamed since President Trump was removed as a defendant and James Mattis quit as Defense Secretary, is now called Jane Doe 2 v. Mark T. Esper, 2019 WL 4394842, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 156803 (D.D.C., September 13, 2019)

The decision makes clear that the court has rejected the government’s argument that the so-called “Mattis Plan,” implemented in April 2019 after the Supreme Court voted to stay the preliminary injunctions that had been issued by the district courts, is entitled to virtually total deference from the court, thus precluding any discovery into how the Mattis Plan was put together, allegedly by a task force of experts convened by Defense Secretary James Mattis in response to the president’s request for a plan to implement the total ban on transgender service that he announced by tweet in July 2017.

When Trump came into office, transgender people were serving openly in the military as a result of a policy announced at the end of June 2016 by President Obama’s Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter.  The Carter policy lifted the existing ban on open transgender military service, but delayed lifting the ban on enlistment of transgender people for one year.  The first move by the Trump Administration concerning this policy was an announcement by Secretary Mattis at the end of June 2017 that he would not lift the enlistment ban until January 2018 in order to make sure that all necessary policies were in place to evaluate transgender applicants for enlistment.

A few weeks later, catching just about everybody by surprise, President Trump tweeted his announcement of a total ban on transgender people serving.  This was followedby a White House memorandum in August 2017, delaying enlistment of transgender people indefinitely, but allowing those already in the military to continue serving until March 2018 while Secretary Mattis came up with an implementation plan to recommend to the president.

Starting in August 2017 and continuing into the fall, four law suits were filed in federal district courts around the country challenging the constitutionality of the ban as announced by the President.  Federal district judges issued preliminary injunctions in all four lawsuits while denying the government’s motion to dismiss them, setting the stage for discovery to begin.  Discovery is the phase of a lawsuit during which the parties can request information, testimony and documents from each other in order to build a factual record for the decision of the case, and under federal discovery rules, anything that may be relevant to decide the case may be discoverable, subject to privileges that parties may assert.

In February 2018, Secretary Mattis released a report, purportedly compiled by a task force of senior military personnel and experts whom Mattis did not identify, discussing transgender military service and recommending a policy that differed in many respects from the absolute ban Trump had announced.  Under this proposed policy, the enlistment ban would be relaxed for transgender people who have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and are willing to serve in their gender as identified at birth.  The policy would allow transgender people who were serving to continue doing so.  Those who were transitioning as of the date the policy was implemented would be allowed to complete their transition and serve in their desired gender.  Otherwise, transgender personnel would have to serve in their gender as identified at birth, and would be separated from the service if they were diagnosed with gender dysphoria.  Nobody would be allowed to initiate transition while in the military once this policy was implemented.  There was no guarantee that transgender personnel would be allowed re-enlist at the end of their term of enlistment unless they met the same standards as a new applicant.  In short, the proposed policy would allow some transgender people to serve, but not all who were otherwise qualified, and would place certain restrictions on those who were allowed to continue serving.

Trump’s response to the recommendation was to revoke his prior policy announcements and to authorize Mattis to implement what became known as the Mattis Plan.  However, all the preliminary injunctions were still in place, so the government concentrated on getting the injunctions dissolved or withdrawn and getting the district judges to dismiss the cases on the ground that the policy they were attacking no longer existed.  The district judges resisted this move, some appeals were taken to the courts of appeals, and ultimately the Mattis Plan was implemented more than a year after it was proposed to the president, when the Supreme Court cut through the procedural difficulties and ruled, without a written opinion, that the Mattis Plan could go into effect while the lawsuits continued.

The focus of the lawsuits now switched to challenge the constitutionality of the Mattis Plan, and the parties went back to battling about discovery after it was clear that the district courts would not dismiss these lawsuits merely because one plan had been substituted for another.  Although some transgender people can serve under the Mattis Plan, the Plan still discriminates both against transgender people who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and against those who have not by requiring them to forego obtaining a diagnosis and transitioning if they want to serve.

One of the issues for Judge Kollar-Kotelly was deciding whether the government was correct to argue that because the Mattis Plan resulted from a Task Force study and recommendation process, it was entitled to standard military deference, under which courts disclaim the power to second-guess the personnel policies the military adopts.  The government focused particularly on a concurring opinion in the D.C. Circuit panel opinion that had quashed the preliminary injunction in this case, which arguably supported the view that plaintiffs were not entitled to discovery of documents and testimony related to the “deliberative process” by which the Mattis Plan was devised.

The judge responded that this was the central issue of the case: whether the Mattis Plan is entitled to standard military deference.  She found that the concurring judge, Stephen Williams, was alone in his view, as the other two members of the D.C. Circuit panel, faithful to Supreme Court precedents, had not opposed discovery, find that the deference question turned on whether the Mattis Plan is “the result of reasoned decision-making” that relates to military readiness concerns.  If, as the plaintiffs suspect and have argued all along, Trump’s motivation in banning transgender military service was motivated by politics, not by any evidence that the Ashton Carter policy had harmed the military by allowing unqualified people to serve, it would not be the result of “reasoned decision-making “and thus not entitled to deference.

Agreeing with the plaintiffs, Judge Kollar-Kotelly wrote that she could not decide the appropriate level of deference (or non-deference) without access to information about how the Mattis Plan was devised.  Thus discovery should continue ,focused on that.  However, she rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that they should be allowed to conduct discovery on Mattis’s initial decision to delay enlistments for six months, or on the process by which Trump formulated the July 2017 total ban announced in his tweet and elaborated in the White House’s August 2017 memorandum. Those, she found, are no longer relevant when the focus of the lawsuit has shifted to the constitutionality of the Mattis Plan.

As to that, however, the judge ruled that the government’s attempt to shield access to relevant information under the “deliberative process privilege” was not applicable to this case.  Just as the current state of the record is inadequate to determine the level of deference, discovery of the deliberative process by which the Mattis Plan was devised is necessary to determine whether it is the “result of reasoned decision-making.”

The judge reviewed a checklist of factors created by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in earlier cases to determine whether the deliberative process privilege should be set aside in a particular case, and found that the plaintiffs’ requests checked all the necessary boxes.  The information is essential to decide the case, it is not available elsewhere than from the government, and the court can use various procedures to ensure that information that needs to be kept confidential can be protected from general exposure through limitations on who can see it, known as protective orders.  Furthermore, the parties can apply to the court for determination of whether any particular document need not be disclosed in discovery on grounds of relevance.

The government was particularly reluctant to comply with the plaintiffs’ request for “raw data and personnel files.”  The plaintiffs sought this in order to determine whether the factual claims made in the Task Force Report are based on documented facts, especially the claims in the Report that allowing persons who have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria to serve will be harmful to military readiness because of limitations on deployment during transitioning and geographical limitations on deployment due to ongoing medical issues after transition.  Critics have pointed out that the Report seems to be based more on the kind of propaganda emanating from anti-transgender groups than on a realistic appraisal of the experience in the military since Secretary Carter lifted the former ban effective July 1, 2016.  Since transgender people in various stages of transition have been serving openly for a few years, there are medical and performance records that could be examined to provide such information, but the government has been refusing to disclose it, claiming both that it raises privacy concerns and that disclosure is unnecessary because the Mattis Plan is entitled to deference as a military policy.

The judge found that it should be possible for these records to be discovered by redacting individually identifying information and imposing limitations on who can see the information and how it can be used.  Thus, the privacy concerns raised by the government should not be an impediment.  And this information, once again, is very relevant to the question whether the statements about the service qualifications of transgender people are based on biased opinions rather than facts, thus discrediting the claim that the policy is the result of reasoned decision-making.

The Trump Administration’s strategy in this, as in many other ongoing lawsuits concerning controversial policy decisions, has been to fight against discovery at every stage and to appeal every ruling adverse to them, including trying to “jump over” the courts of appeals to get the Supreme Court to intervene on the government’s behalf, now that Trump has succeeded in fortifying the conservative majority on the Court with the additions of Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh.  It would not be surprising if the government seeks to appeal Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s ruling to the D.C. Circuit once again to put off (perhaps permanently) the day when they will have to give up the identities of the Mattis Task Force members and open the books on how this policy – obviously political in its conception and implementation – was conceived.

Of course, if the White House changes hands in January 2021, a Democrat president could reverse the ban in any of its forms with a quick Executive Order restoring Secretary Carter’s policy from 2016.  As the four lawsuits continue to be bogged down in discovery disputes, that may be the way this story eventually ends.  If Trump is re-elected, the story continues to drag out while the Mattis Plan stays in place.

The plaintiffs are represented by a growing army of volunteer big firm attorneys and public interest lawyers from GLAD (GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

9th Circuit Instructs District Court on Next Stage in Trans Military Litigation

Posted on: June 18th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit issued a ruling on June 14 on several appeals filed by the Justice Department in Karnoski v. Trump, one of the lawsuits challenging President Trump’s transgender military policy.  The result was not a complete win for the government or the plaintiffs, but the case will go forward before U.S. District Judge Marsha J. Pechman in Seattle using different legal tests than those she had employed in issuing the rulings that the government had appealed.  Because one of the other challenges to the policy is pending in a district court in Riverside, California, which is also within the 9th Circuit, the court’s ruling effectively applies to both cases.  Karnoski v. Trump, 2019 U.S. App. LEXIS 17878, 2019 WL 2479442 (9th Cir., June 14, 2019).

Since neither party is likely to be fully satisfied with the ruling, which does not fully embrace either party’s position on the appeals, it is possible that one or both will seek reconsideration by a larger panel of the circuit court.  In the 9th Circuit, such panels consist of the Chief Judge of the Circuit and ten active circuit judges drawn at random, together with any senior judges who sat on the panel.  The panel that issued the June 14 ruling had two senior judges – Raymond C. Fisher and Richard R. Clifton – and one active judge, Conseulo M. Callahan.  Fisher was appointed by Bill Clinton, while Clifton and Callahan were appointed by George W. Bush.  District Judge Pechman was appointed by Bill Clinton.

For purposes of simplicity, this description of where the lawsuit stands will refer to the policy announced by then-Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in June 2016 as the 2016 policy, the policy announced in tweets and a White House memorandum by President Donald Trump in July and August 2017 as the 2017 policy, and the policy recommended to Trump by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis in February 2018 as the 2018 policy.

The 2016 policy ended the long-standing regulatory ban on military service by transgender people, but delayed allowing transgender people to enlist until July 2017.  In June 2017, Secretary Mattis announced that the ban on enlistment would be extended to the end of 2017.  The July tweet and August 2017 memorandum announced a return to the ban on service and enlistment that predated the 2016 policy, but delayed re-implementation of the ban until March 2018, pending submission of an implementation plan to the president by Mattis, while providing that the ban on enlistment would remain in effect.

The plan Mattis recommended in February 2018, and that Trump authorized him to adopt, abandoned the total ban concept and is complicated to explain. The policy attempted to shift its focus, at least in terms of concept, from transgender status to the condition of gender dysphoria as described in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  The 2018 plan allows some transgender people to serve under certain conditions, depending upon whether and when they were diagnosed with gender dysphoria, whether and when they intended to transition or had transitioned, and whether they were willing to serve in their gender as identified at birth.  People who had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria were barred from enlisting, and currently serving transgender personnel who had not been diagnosed and initiated the process of transitioning by the time the 2018 policy went into effect could continue serving only if they foreswore transitioning while in the service.  However, those who were serving and had begun transitioning before the 2018 policy went into effect could continue serving in the gender to which they had transitioned.  People who identify as transgender but have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and are content to serve in the gender identified at birth can enlist and serve, but must leave the service if they are subsequently diagnosed with gender dysphoria.  The bottom line, which was a motivation for Trump’s initial tweet, is that once the 2018 policy was in place, the military would not be funding sex-reassignment surgery for anyone and people could not transition in the military.

Beginning in August 2017 and continuing through that summer, challengers file four lawsuits challenging the 2017 policy on constitutional grounds in Baltimore, Washington (D.C.), Seattle, and Riverside (California).  All of the major LGBT litigation groups were representing the plaintiff in one or more of the cases.  Within months, each of the federal district judges had granted motions for preliminary injunctions to prevent the 2017 policy from going into effect.  In order to issue the injunctions, all four judges had to find that some or all of the plaintiffs’ legal arguments had a fair chance of succeeding on the merits, and that the injunctions were necessary to prevent irreparable harm to the plaintiffs by preserving the status quo without harming the public interest.  The district judges refused to “stay” their injunctions, and on the east coast they were backed up by the 4th and D.C. Circuits, leading the government to abandon an attempt to appeal the denial of stays for the west coast cases in the 9th Circuit.  The district judges also rejected motions by the government to dismiss the cases.  Thus, on January 1, 2018, the Defense Department was required to accept enlistment applications from transgender people, and the 2016 policy remained in effect for transgender people who were actively serving in the military.

Meanwhile, Secretary Mattis appointed a Task Force as directed by the August 2017 White House memo to prepare a report in support of an implementation policy recommendation, which he submitted to the White House in February 2018, urging the president to revoke the 2017 policy and to allow Mattis to implement his recommended policy.  The Task Force was described in various ways at various times by the government, but the names and titles of the members were not listed in the written report released to the public, and the government has resisted discovery requests for their identity and information about how the Task Force report was prepared.

Once Secretary Mattis had the go-ahead from Trump to implement his recommendation, the Justice Department moved in all four courts to get the preliminary injunctions lifted, arguing that the 2018 policy was sufficiently different from the 2017 policy to render the existing injunctions irrelevant.  All four of the district judges rejected that argument and refused to dissolve or modify their injunctions.  The government appealed and ultimately was able to persuade the Supreme Court earlier this year to stay the injunctions and allow the policy to go into effect early in April. Although the 2018 policyhas been in effect for over two months, there have not been reports about discharges of serving transgender personnel.

Significantly, the 9th Circuit panel implied without ruling that the preliminary injunction against the 2017 policy seemed justified.

Meanwhile, the parties in the four cases were litigating about the plaintiffs’ attempts to conduct discovery on order to surface the information necessary to prove their constitutional claims against the policy.  The government fought the discovery requests doggedly, arguing that the internal workings of its military policy-making should not be subject to disclosure in civil litigation, referring to but not formally invoking concepts of decisional privilege and executive privilege, which courts have recognized to varying extent in prior cases challenging government policies.

In the Karnoski case in Seattle, Judge Pechman was highly skeptical about the government’s arguments, having questioned whether the policies were motivated by politics rather than professional military judgment, and she issued an order for the government to comply with a large portion of the requests for documents and information after prolonged negotiations by the lawyers largely came to naught.  The government appealed her discovery orders to the 9th Circuit, together with refusal to rethink the preliminary injunction in light of the substitution of the 2018 policy for the 2017 policy.

The June 14 opinion describes how the case should go forward, taking account of the Supreme Court’s action in having stayed the preliminary injunctions but not dissolved them.  The 9th Circuit panel agreed with the D.C. Circuit, which had concluded earlier in the year that the D.C. district court was wrong to conclude that the 2018 policy was just a version of the 2017 policy with some exceptions.  The appellate courts held that the 2018 policy recommended by Mattis was no longer the total ban announced in 2017, so the district court should evaluate the 2018 policy.

The court rejected the government’s argument that shifting the exclusionary policy from “transgender status” to “gender dysphoria” eliminated the equal protection issue, finding from the wording of the Task Force report and the policy as summarized in writing by Mattis that the policy continued to target transgender people in various ways, regardless whether they have been diagnosed with gender dysphoria, through the conditions it places on their service.  This was a “win” for the plaintiffs on an important contested point.

Judge Pechman had concluded that gender identity is a “suspect classification,” so for purposes of evaluating the constitutionality of the policy under an Equal Protection challenge, it should be presumed unconstitutional with a heavy burden placed on the government to prove a compelling need for the policy.  The 9th Circuit panel decided there was not sufficient precedent to support that approach, but did agree with the position taken by the district judges in the other three cases that the policy should be subjected to “heightened scrutiny,” similar to the approach courts take in sex discrimination cases, but tempered by consideration of the degree to which the policy merits deference as a product of professional military judgment.

Judge Pechman had concluded that the 2017 policy did not merit judicial deference, because there was no evidence before the court that it was the product of professional military judgment.  Rather, as all the district judges had concluded, based on the way the policy was announced in a surprise tweet and the failure of the government to provide any information about how it was formulated, the court’s analysis should not be tempered by judicial deference.

Now, however, said the 9th Circuit panel, the government had described, in a general way, how Mattis’s Task Force was put together, and t the 2018 policy was allegedly the result of many meetings, study, much interviewing of military personnel, and a 44—page report.  If one accepts the government’s description of the process – still not identifying by name the Task Force members or getting into any real detail about the basis for their conclusions – the court said, there is an argument that the 2018 policy should be accorded judicial deference, but whether to do so, and how that would interrelate with the heightened scrutiny standard, were questions to be addressed by the district court.  Thus, the task for Judge Pechman now is to determine whether the 2018 policy is sufficiently a product of military judgment to justify applying a deferential standard of review.  Some degree of cooperating by the government in the discovery process is crucially necessary for such an analysis to take place.

However, as to discovery, the 9th Circuit panel expressed concern that Judge Pechman had not accorded sufficient weight to the concepts of decisional and executive privilege in formulating her discovery order, and directed that she refer to guidelines set out in some recent court opinions.  In particular, the court disagreed with her order that the government provide detailed privilege logs with descriptions of all the documents for which there were privilege concerns, and suggested that an approach focused on broadly described categories of documents and information could suffice for an initial determination of the degree to which privilege might be claimed to block disclosure.

The bottom line is that the Karnoski case goes back to Judge Pechman for a fresh analysis of whether plaintiffs should be entitled to a preliminary injunction against the 2018 policy, using heightened scrutiny and taking account of privilege claims in the discovery process, along the lines outlined by the court.  This opinion also sends a message to the district court in Riverside, where similar government motions are pending.  Meanwhile, the discovery battles continue in the cases pending in Baltimore and Washington.

In light of the Trump Administration’s general policy of fighting against demands for disclosure of internal executive branch decision-making, whether by Congressional committees or litigants, it is difficult to predict when there will be sufficient discovery to provide a basis for further rulings on preliminary injunctions or the ultimate merits of the four court challenges.  The lawsuits succeed in blocking implementation of the total ban and the 2017 policy, and in delaying implementation of the 2018 policy for more than a year.

The litigation will not be finally resolved before Inauguration Day in January 2021 unless the Trump Administration is willing to negotiate some sort of compromise settlement satisfactory to the plaintiffs.  If any of the current Democratic presidential candidates is elected and takes office, a quickly-issued executive order restoring the 2016 policy could put an end to the entire transgender military service drama and restore sanity to an issue that has been clouded by politics and substantial misinformation, such as Trump’s recent grossly-exaggerated statements about the cost of health care for transgender personnel.

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

Posted on: May 28th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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