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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.

Second Round of Briefing in LGBT Title VII Cases Before the Supreme Court Completed During August

Posted on: September 7th, 2019 by Art Leonard No Comments

On October 8, the second day of hearings in the Supreme Court’s October 2019 Term, the Court will hear arguments in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, Case No. 17-1618, and Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda, Case No. 17-1623, appeals from the 11th and 2nd Circuits on the question whether sexual orientation discrimination claims are actionable as sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and in R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Aimee Stephens, Case No. 18-107, an appeal from the 6th Circuit on the question whether gender identity discrimination claims are actionable as sex discrimination under Title VII.  The Court consolidated the two sexual orientation discrimination cases, in which the plaintiff-employee is appealing in Bostock and the defendant-employer is appealing in Altitude Express, for a single argument of one hour.  The argument in Harris Funeral Homes, in which the employer is appealing, will be argued next.  Transcripts of the arguments will be posted on the Supreme Court’s website shortly after each argument has concluded (usually within an hour or two), and links to audio recordings of the arguments will be made available on the Court’s website later in the week.

Harris Funeral Homes presents an unusual situation; the victorious party in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), is represented in the Supreme Court by the Solicitor General, who, reflecting the change of administration since the original complaint in this case was filed by the EEOC, is now joining with the employer to ask the Court to reverse the 6th Circuit.  The only party defending the 6th Circuit’s decision is the charging party in the EEOC proceeding, transgender funeral director Aimee Stephens, who intervened as a co-appellant in the 6th Circuit, is named as a Respondent in Harris Funeral Homes’ cert. petition, and is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union. Harris Funeral Homes is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the conservative religious litigation group that is a frequent litigant opposing LGBT rights in the courts.

For purposes of briefing, the Court decided to treat all the employee-plaintiffs in the three cases as if they were Petitioners (although only Bostock is a Petitioner in the Supreme Court), and the three employer-defendants as if they were Respondents (even though two of them are actually Petitioners).  Thus, the first round of briefing, which was concluded early in July, consisted of the main briefs for Gerald Bostock, the Estate of Donald Zarda, and Aimee Stephens, and the amicus briefs (more than 40) filed in support of their claims that Title VII does extend to sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination claims.  The second round of briefing, which concluded during August, consisted of the briefs for the three employers – Clayton County, Georgia; Altitude Express; and Harris Funeral Homes; and the EEOC, which is technically a respondent even though the government, as such, is now siding with the Petitioner.

Interestingly, despite earnest efforts by the Solicitor General’s Office, the EEOC’s General Counsel, who would ordinarily be a signatory on the brief purporting to represent their agency, did not join in the submission of the government’s brief, since as of the date of filing the EEOC had not disavowed its position that gender identity discrimination claims are covered by Title VII.  Indeed, the amicus brief filed by the Solicitor General in the sexual orientation cases on behalf of the employer also lacked the EEOC’s signature, since the agency that enforces Title VII (and whose interpretation of the statute is entitled to judicial deference, under existing precedents), has not disavowed its position (argued as an agency amicus in the 2nd Circuit) that Title VII covers sexual orientation claims.  Quite a tangle for the Supreme Court to confront. During oral argument of Zarda v. Altitude Express in the 2nd Circuit, the en banc bench reflected some puzzlement and bemusement about being confronted with a lawyer from the S.G.’s office and a lawyer from the EEOC arguing against each other.

Simultaneously with the filing of the government’s brief, the Solicitor General filed a request that argument time be divided evenly (15 minutes each) between the Solicitor General’s office and ADF, counsel for Harris Funeral Homes.

Law Notes gave an overview of the first round of filings in our August 2019 issue.  Herewith is a brief summary of the second round of filings.

Altitude Express’s brief was signed by Saul D. Zabell, Counsel of Record who has represented the company throughout this litigation, and Ryan T. Biesenbach of Zabell & Collotta, P.C., a Bohemia, N.Y., law firm.  It predictably argues that the meaning of Title VII must be its “original public meaning” – the meaning that members of the public would attribute to the statutory language when it was enacted by Congress in 1964.  The brief claims that the Supreme Court has never interpreted Title VII in a manner that “conflicts” with “the original public meaning of ‘sex’.”  It also describes as “wrong” the various legal theories offered by Bostock for construing “sex” to include “gender identity.”  It argues that subsequent legislative developments – the repeated introduction of bills to amend federal anti-discrimination law to add “sexual orientation” that have never achieved enactment, as well as the enactment of some other statutes that use ‘sexual orientation’ such as the Hate Crimes Law – show Congress’s understanding that the term must be used to address such discrimination, noting also that after the EEOC and several lower federal courts had rejected sexual orientation discrimination claims in the early period of Title VII’s history, Congress passed a package of amendments to Title VII in 1991 but did not overrule any of those rulings legislatively.  The brief also rejects certain other arguments that some lower court judges had accepted as reasons for extending Title VII to cover sexual orientation claims.  None of these arguments was new or unanticipated, and they were all rejected in one way or another not only in the 2nd Circuit (en banc) but also in the 7th Circuit (en banc) in 2017 in Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, a case where the employer decided not to seek Supreme Court review.

Clayton County’s brief (Bostock), signed by Counsel of Record Jack R. Hancock and other attorneys from the Forest Park, Georgia, law firm of Freeman Mathis & Gary LLP, carries the same argument headings as Altitude Express’s brief.  Indeed, they appear to be a joint product, making identical arguments.

The main brief that drew most of the press commentary when it was filed, of course, was the Solicitor General’s brief, on which S.G. Noel J. Francisco is Counsel of Record.  The other signatories are attorneys in the Solicitor General’s office and main Justice Department.  As noted above, and deemed newsworthy, no attorneys from the EEOC signed this brief which is presented as the brief of the Federal Respondent (which, technically, is the EEOC).   The brief urges the Court to adopt a narrow interpretation of key Title VII Supreme Court precedents on which the EEOC had relied in the 6th Circuit, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins and Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, contending that the 6th Circuit had extended them beyond their holdings to reach the conclusion that allowing gender identity discrimination claims is consistent with Supreme Court precedent.  Most of the arguments in the brief are variants of one or more of the arguments in the Altitude Express and Clayton County briefs, effectively countering the EEOC’s justifications for applying Title VII to gender identity claims in Macy v. Holder, EEOC Doc. 0120120821, 2012 WL 1435995 (2012).  Even though the EEOC has not overruled Macy, it is anticipated that it may do so in due course as the new majority resulting from Trump’s appointments to the Commission either rules on a federal sector gender identity discrimination case, proposes a new regulatory interpretation, or takes a position in litigation in the lower federal courts embracing a change of position.  The Commission could just instruct its regional offices to dismiss gender identity claims on jurisdictional grounds, similar to the action of the U.S. Department of Education which now refuses to process gender identity discrimination claims under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

The brief on behalf of Harris Funeral Homes, submitted by Alliance Defending Freedom, attracted comparatively little attention, with the Solicitor General being the “elephant in the room.”  Mainstream press coverage clearly sees Harris as part of the Trump Administration’s overall opposition to transgender rights as part of its systemic attempt to reverse the civil rights positions taken by the Obama Administration. Clearly, the president feels that he was elected to overturn everything that the Obama Administration did, if possible.  This was certainly reflected in his transgender military service ban and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ October 2017 memorandum disavowing the Obama Administration’s positions on both sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination.

Beginning on August 16 and extending through August 23, the Supreme Court clerk added to the docket forty amicus briefs supporting Harris Funeral Homes’ (and the Solicitor General’s) position that Title VII does not extend to gender identity discrimination claims.  Some were from the “usual suspects” familiar to anybody who had scanned the amicus lists in Obergefell and Windsor, the cases concerning marriage equality.  They include states whose anti-discrimination laws do not cover gender identity, Republican members of Congress, companies that don’t want to be forced to employ transgender people, individual legal scholars, polemicists, think tanks and policy institutes, and, of course, religious entities that argue that requiring employers to accommodate transgender people excessively burdens their religious freedom.  (In Harris, the owner of the funeral homes stated his religious beliefs as a justification for his refusal to continue employing the plaintiff after she wrote to him about her gender transition. As a result of this, the district court ruled in favor of Harris Funeral Homes in reliance on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, employing an interpretation subsequently rejected by the 6th Circuit.  Surprisingly, in light of its religious freedom orientation, ADF did not include in its cert petition a question about the application of the RFRA to this case, so technically the religious arguments made by many of the amici are not pertinent to the questions on which cert was granted.

Particular press attention was drawn to briefs of some feminist groups who are particularly perturbed about any legal recognition of transgender women, making arguments that fall far outside the mainstream of the professional medical and mental health communities about the nature of human sexuality, contending that transgender women are men in drag who should not be given admission to women-only spaces and should not be accorded the treatment under anti-discrimination law that has been accorded to women.  Vox.com devoted a lengthy article to explaining the opposition of some feminist groups to transgender rights.  See Katelyn Burns, The Rise of Anti-Trans ‘Radical’ Feminists, Explained” (posted September 5, 2019).

Also during August, 24 amicus briefs (including one from the Solicitor General, as the federal government is not a party in the sexual orientation cases) were filed in support of the employers in the sexual orientation discrimination cases, Bostock and Altitude Express.  Of course, the EEOC’s legal staff is not represented among the signers of the Solicitor General’s amicus brief, again a newsworthy absence denoting that at least as of the time when briefs were due, the agency had not abandoned its position in Baldwin v. Foxx, EEOC No. 0120133080, 2015 WL 4397641 (2015), that Title VII covers sexual orientation discrimination claims.  Many of these amicus briefs were noted as addressing all three pending Title VII cases and thus were also filed and counted among the Harris Funeral Home amicus briefs.  When it announced the filing schedule, the Court also directed that amicus briefs for the Altitude Express case were to be filed on the Bostock docket. The same mix of amici that one finds on the Harris Funeral Homes docket generally show up on the Bostock list, minus those groups who have a specific focus on opposing transgender rights.  The arguments in the amicus briefs are similar as well, although, of course, the argument that gender is identified at birth is permanent and not changeable is absent here, while it predominates in many of the amicus briefs filed in Harris Funeral Homes.

Several of these amicus briefs emanate from groups that may have been formed for the specific purpose of filing amicus briefs in these cases.  All of the docketed amicus briefs can be examined on the Supreme Court’s website, where they are available to be downloaded in pdf format.

The deadline for the third round of briefing set by the Court is September 16, when Reply Briefs can be filed, responding to the briefs that were filed in August.  Reply briefs, if any, will be reported in the October issue of Law Notes.